Thursday, 14 December 2017

Frozen: A winter's tale, from Broken Barnet

                                                                                                                        Pic credit Angela Barrett

Updated 15th December: see below:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Councillors,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


*Updated 15th December:

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

And here:

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

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

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

It has not been outsourced.

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

If you go to Barnet Council Winter maintenance web page you will see the contact details for Re, view here

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

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

No accountability.

Back to the Gritting service.

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

It is really important to note that fact.

What happened on Sunday 10 December 2017?

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

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

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

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

I have asked and I am still waiting…….

Harrow depot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If they did, why was it so ineffectual? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Incidental and meanwhile uses: or - Barbarians at the gate - our library cutting Tory councillors discover the world of culture.

What remains of the former flagship children's library at Hendon: 'refurbished' by your Tory councillors ...

Updated 29th November: see below*

It becomes more and more difficult to write about the true state of things here in the London Borough of Broken Barnet. 

That is not just because the truth is so unpalatable: but because it has now moved beyond the scope of moral outrage, or even satire. 

What can you say, after a week where we have seen a fatally wounded Prime Minister arrive in the borough to admire the 'success' of Tory housing policy, avoiding the gaping wound of West Hendon, still in the process of social cleansing, and escorted instead to the  safety of the Stonegrove development, where ... oh, the deputy leader of the Tory group happens to live?

PM Theresa May on a visit to Edgware, to admire the sort of housing affordable to local Tory deputy council leaders like Daniel Thomas, (left). Pic credit Times group

In the week where our local authority, slated in a recent OFSTED report for its failings in regard to young children in care, so blithely announces a new 'partnership' with UNICEF .... 

Yes, UNICEF, whose role is to provide humanitarian and developmental support to children in ... developing countries, is now obliged to help the Tory councillors of Broken Barnet fulfil their duty of care to the borough's most vulnerable families.

Oh, and this was also the week where our local authority, as it slides further and further into the mire, at the same meeting where the catastrophic Tory library cuts were (yet again) challenged by local campaigners, debated a report declaring an ambition to become the London Borough of Culture ...  (In 2021, which is the equivalent to the Twelfth of Never, for Tories, in Broken Barnet, as by then the People's Revolution will have taken place - or failing that, Barnet Labour group will be running the council).

Would you like a taste of this breathtakingly stupid report? It proposes, and please excuse me: 

"the establishment of a time-limited council-funded resource to kick start the use of spaces for incidental and ‘meanwhile uses’ in the borough ..."


Heavenly Father, please forgive the author of this report, because Mrs Angry cannot, and condemns him to the worst pit in corporate hell, surrounded and eternally tormented by outsourced imps with especially well sharpened easycouncil forks.

Meanwhile uses.

And who, Mrs Angry, I hear you ask, is going to help our culturally averse Tory councillors learn the ropes, when it comes to you know, art, and all that sort of thing? 

What sort of thing they have in mind is hard to tell, as the only example of cultural patronage they can come up with is a reference to 'supporting' a sculpture installation at Middlesex University. 

Barnet Tories are fond of sculpture, it must be said. 

Outside the Town Hall is a monstrous phallic object, a sort of giant bronze dildo, (batteries not included) foisted on them by some twin town municipality, which they have tried to hide in, ahem, a modest covering of bush: the effect is pretty startling. Art, see: all the same, good or bad: they haven't got a f*cking clue. Oh, hang on: see here - it was of course unveiled by Mrs Thatcher - apparently she was so taken by it, she kept a replica in the privacy of her Downing Street study. 

Goodness me.

And ha ha: here is what greeted Margaret, when they installed the monstrosity, according to the same account in the local Times paper, in 1981:

Among the crowds in The Burroughs waiting to see the Prime Minister and the unveiling were a handful of demonstrators with 12 posters on behalf of Nalgo and the TGWU protesting, among other things, at cuts in the library service.

Plus ├ža change ...

And yes, good news, our council will address the challenge of cultural promotion in time honoured tradition - no, not another nonsultation, but yes, a working group. Oh, hang on, they've already had some thoughts, this group, meeting with stakeholders. In secret, of course. No, not residents:

Arts and Culture is also one of the five themes agreed by the Barnet
Partnership, a partnership chaired by the Leader of the Council, comprising of
Barnet Clinical Commissioning Group, CommUNITY Barnet, Barnet and
Southgate College, Middlesex University, Brent Cross shopping centre,
Metropolitan Police, Job Centre Plus, Groundwork London, Federation of
Small Businesses, West London Business, Argent Related and Saracens

Yes. Arts and culture, as a 'theme' agreed with local bodies such as the police, and the CCG. Oh. As well as favoured Saracens rugby club (whose chairman Nigel Wray is a Totteridge constituent of Tory leader Richard Cornelius). Think that, on the whole, the CCG ought to try to do its own work better, that is to say, to provide a decent standard of healthcare to the residents of this borough - perhaps addressing the length of waiting lists, & lack of appointments, or the scandal of the still half empty Finchley Memorial Hospital, don't you? And the police probably have better things to do. But Brent Cross Shopping Centre? The foremost temple of culture, in Broken Barnet, of course.

This working group, though: the council, Middlesex Uni, and the Artsdepot. They held a workshop in July, apparently. Who was invited, asked Gerrard Roots, in a written question? (Gerrard is the former curator of the local Churchfarmhouse Museum - ransacked & shut by Tory councillors, not so long ago). Oh: they weren't going to say, as that would reveal 'personal information', and he would have to submit a Freedom of Information request for any reply. Eh? Mr Roots, with a masterly demonstration  of his usual lack of tolerance of fools, now pointed out, at some length, that he had already said that they could redact personal names, and that there was absolutely no justification of withholding the identities of groups and other bodies who may have attended. Labour's Pauline Coakley Webb also commented that there was no excuse for withholding such information from elected councillors. 

Fellow blogger Roger Tichborne, who is also a musician, runs a recording studio and a local music festival, had been so incensed by this report that he had made an address to the committee, rightly pointing out that 'culture' was created by the community, and not decided by working groups. The Tory members and their senior officers looked on in silence. 

But there were other public questions - all on the subject of libraries.

Hidden away in one of the reports was a brief but significant statement:

1.23 Libraries: Savings to the library service budget are being delivered
through the implementation of the library strategy, which was agreed
by Council in April 2016. The strategy to reduce the number of staffed
hours at each site alongside the offer of self-service technology
enabled opening is delivering savings in the library service operational
budget whilst maintaining all 14 library sites as well as the home and
mobile library services. The potential to further increase income-raising
opportunities within the library service operational budget has been
considered and are considered unachievable.

Savings to the library service budget are being delivered, are they?

Well, no: not on the level you claimed you needed, you fibbers.

Barnet's library campaigners, including Mrs Angry, submitted a number of questions intended to expose such a claim, and drawing attention to what is really happening. 

The written responses, frankly, were staggering - and elicited the information that Barnet Council was in such desperate straits, as a result of its reckless cuts programme, that it was now prepared to spend an incredible amount of money on security to guard Barnet's newly 'de-staffed',  so called 'self service' libraries. 

This would pay for a significant number of library workers.

In the previous year, these responses revealed, only £20,000 had been spent on routine security needs in libraries. 

Yet since the new 'self entry' system has been introduced, (although not reaching the extended hours promised by our dear councillors) the monthly bill - or so we were led to assume - has been £70,000. The monthly amount is about to be increased by another £25,000, each month.

*UPDATED 29th November

At the CELS meeting, when challenged about this monthly cost, no denial of the figure in the written response was made. Yet when a local reporter asked about the level of cost, Barnet representatives allegedly suggested the total amount paid in extra security had been only £70,000 - in total.

Fellow blogger Mr Reasonable has written today about last month's expenditure and has checked the security bill:

It is quite clear that the security bill, since the unstaffed libraries system was introduced, has risen by up to £35,000 per month. Unless this is entirely a coincidence, and Blue Nine are being billed for some unknown charge, this is likely to be related to the use of security in place of library staff. Adding another £25,000 a month makes a £60,000 bill: how many library workers would that pay for? Thirty?

Why are they using security guards? Because they are too scared to run the unstaffed system as planned, that is to say ... unstaffed. The doors are too unreliable, too difficult for many to negotiate, & they are worried by the fact that DDCMS are considering a formal complaint about the impact of the scheme - as well as trying to minimise electoral damage before next year's elections. 

They claim the use of security guards is just an 'interim' measure, to provide a 'reassuring presence' while the system is new. This is ludicrous: there will always be new users, and those in need of a 'reassuring presence'. We used to have that, anyway, at a fraction of the cost: they were called library staff.

Barnet is also claiming 12,000 have registered to use the new system. What they don't tell you is the number of residents who have not, and are therefore denied access to the 'unstaffed' hours. It seems more than 80% of all readers are unregistered.

So: to save £2.2 million per annum, Barnet is not only throwing £14 million of capital funds, but another whopping amount per annum too,  for security. 

It gets worse. 

If you use Barnet libraries, you will have noticed that although they pretend to have 'retained' all branches, in truth they have gutted those libraries, reducing the library function within each building to a nominal service, and in the process, shutting several children's libraries, and squeezing the size of others to a minimum. This was supposedly in order to create rentable 'office space', which would generate £500,000 in annual income.

Think again. 

One of Mrs Angry's supplementary questions was to enquire why Barnet council staff - or rather Capita staff - are said to be about to be placed in these spaces, rather than commercial tenants. Was this not, as we were warned, always the plan, and what exactly is the benefit to Capita? 

Will they profit from this arrangement, in terms of free accommodation, or gainshare payments? Guess what: they didn't want to say ... 

But for a minimal amount of savings, a fraction of the original estimate, we have been paid the cost in terms of  loss of a once magnificent, Beacon status, value for money library service: the loss of access for all unaccompanied children under 16, the loss of so much book stock, and study space, and the loss of half our library staff, to be replaced by ... security guards. 

As a way of making 'savings', with approximately 20 years ahead of using the paltry sum left over to pay back the £14 million used to assault our libraries ... erm: looks like, Tory councillors, you really have f*cked up, big time, once again, doesn't it? 

Heart warming smiles from local Tories - Finchley & Golders Green MP Mike Freer, Tory leader Richard Cornelius, & library cutter in chief Reuben Thompstone, all of whom now want you to believe they have invested £14 million in libraries, rather than spent this money slashing the service to shreds ...

Well: you may be surprised to hear that the Chair of this committee, Reuben Thompstone, was unmoved by, or, perhaps, bless him, uncomprehending of, the revelations of his party's failure to achieve the wonderful budget savings they thought justified the assault on our library service.  

Thompstone is one of those young Tories so who desperately crave the status of being appointed to the position of Chair of - well, something, anything - and rather than wait for gravitas to arrive after years of public service, apply a larding of pomposity, a good deal of shoutiness, and a novelty moustache, so as to enhance their position.

Increasingly red faced, and hiding behind said moustache, (he appears to be aiming for the full handlebar, but is apparently unable to reach a satisfactory length) he rudely dismissed all of Mrs Angry's supplementary  questions, speaking over her comments, either unable, or unwilling, to answer the questions. 

Rudeness is one thing, shouting down a female resident and refusing to acknowledge her constitutional right to have a response to a supplementary question ...  is something else. I think we know what it is, don't we?

Mrs Angry suggested to Cllr Thompstone that he should resign, a suggestion he appears to have found unwelcome, and then, when he refused to give any response at all to her last question, she declared she would remain seated at the table until he did, even if it took all evening, only giving way to Lisa Pate, who was presenting a petition about school budget cuts, ignored of course by Thompstone. Shame she was obliged to miss the opportunity to see Tombstone call for security guards to remove her, at which point Mrs Angry was planning to recommend that (providing he has a pin number, or indeed a ticket) he could go and visit a library to find one. 

Ah well.

Cllr Reuben Thompstone, pic credit Linkedin

Thompstone's other tactic was to deflect questions to a senior officer sitting nearby, who apparently is leaving now, anyway. The same officer who had, once upon a time, so happily explained to Mrs Angry, although she seemed not to enjoy being reminded of it at the table, that the revenue from income generation was anyway ... of little significance. 

Of course it wasn't: our Tory councillors never intended it to work out that way. The important thing was to decimate the service, hand the buildings over to Capita - and free up space for staff displaced by the move from North London Business Park to much smaller premises in Colindale.

In Thompstone's time as Chair of CELS, there has been a disastrous OFSTED report identifying 'serious failures' in children's services, an attempt to cut vital respite care for the families of children with profound and complex disabilities, and now the virtual destruction of a library service at breathtaking cost - and for no sensible reason. 

Not only has the library cuts programme been a financial disaster, even by its own terms of reference, it has been another Barnet Tory failure. 

Where are all the volunteers on which this cock eyed scheme was meant to depend? Why are the few surviving library workers being required to carry out their duties, as well as their own? As Barnet Unison has pointed out, it is insulting to expect staff members to cover for the failure of the council's own cuts programme:

It is unacceptable that the remaining staff be asked to plug the gaps left by the loss
of jobs of friends and colleagues. The Libraries in Self Service Opening (SSO) mode
are meant to be unstaffed, which is not something the staff or public wanted. But if
they are meant to be unstaffed it is ridiculous that staff should have to work in these
branches in replacement for deleted jobs.

In the end, the library cuts are not about saving money, but driven by the atavistic, neo-Thatcherite delusions of Barnet Tories, who maintain an implacable, irrational fear of the very principle of public service, and to the demands of culture, and the arts, and thinking, or creating, or honouring the artistic and historical heritage we have, or had, here in Broken Barnet. In fact, they have been complicit in a betrayal of Thatcher's own feelings about libraries: she recognised the role they play in education, and social mobility, and always fought to protect them. 

Slipping out of the Town Hall, Mrs Angry noticed, on the way to the bus stop, that, next door, the newly emasculated Hendon Library was still open. Impossible to pass by, without taking a look.

During the questions at the CELS meeting, she had commented that, on visiting  Golders Green Library, she had been moved to tears - tears of rage - seeing what the Tory cuts had done to the place where she had once worked. To see the former children's library destroyed, scoured out of existence, obliterated: this was a traumatic experience. For the local community, particularly the local Charedi Jewish community, this was, and is, a catastrophe. To see Hendon Library, once the borough's flagship library, reduced to the pathetic state it is now, is beyond description. 

Where there was once a large and well stocked adult library, a separate children's library, libraries for music, reference and archives - now there is nothing but a token service, in small, blocked off section of the ground floor. 

The former children's library has, as at Golders Green, and North Finchley, been thrown out of its purpose built room, and reduced to a pathetic installation in one corner. 

And the final insult: placing above the children's corner the old tribute to Eileen Colwell, the pioneering champion of children's librarianship. 

The ultimate act of blasphemy, in the new corner sized children's 'library', next to Hendon Town Hall: the now replaced picture of pioneering librarian Eileen Colwell - which only serves to remind us of the irreplaceable legacy our Tory councillors have stolen from future generations of children in Barnet.

The library issue in Barnet has always been so much more than the story of one public service. 

It represents something far wider, and more profound, locally, and nationally. 

It is the last frontier of something we cannot quite yet see, but sense is slipping out of our grasp - part of the last vestiges of a society we thought we had built on foundations that would last forever, now hacked away, from under our feet.

As the Tory councillors here in Broken Barnet continue on their assault on public services, however, they fail to see that they are undermining not the foundations of our community spirit, so much as their own electoral future. 

So be it.

Friday, 3 November 2017

An Enemy of the People: or - Barnet's Tory councillors finally lose the plot

Former Barnet Mayor Councillor David Longstaff, who accuses the Mayor of London of being 'An Enemy of the People' ...

Mrs Angry tries her best to avoid Full Council meetings of the London Borough of Broken Barnet, for very good reason: an aversion to pantomime, long standing, which dates back, well ...  to childhood days, long ago, and unhappy memories of Christmas outings to the Golders Green Hippodrome. 

This annual visit involved a range of unforgettable theatrical moments, such as the deranged antics of an aged Arthur Askey, incongruously dressed as Buttons, leaping about the stage like a performing chimpanzee escaped from a tea party at London Zoo, menacing the boys and girls in the stalls with his manic grin, and air of desperation. And then there was the fear induced by the compulsory session of audience participation, in which hapless small children, still quaking with fear, would be hauled up from the stalls on to the stage to take part in the show. Horrible.

The combination of knockabout farce, grotesque plots, and wizened, grimacing old men frightening the audience means, therefore, that Full Council meetings that involve the grandstanding theatrical performance of Barnet Tory councillors hold little attraction: but Tuesday's agenda, and in particular some of the idiotic written questions put by administration members, proved more tempting than usual. 

The Hippodrome, of course, has been much in the news, recently, for all the wrong reasons. After many years as a traditional theatre, and then as a venue for the BBC, the listed building was taken over by a Christian church, but it has now changed hands once again, to a body that wishes to use the former theatre for a Muslim centre. Unfortunately, this proposal has met with a reaction of hostility from some local residents, and led to a barrage of offensive, racist comments left on the council's planning portal, which had to be removed. Worse still, the situation has been inflamed by other parties, such as those who organised a meeting at which further extreme views were expressed: a meeting attended by self styled 'Mosque buster' Gavin Boby.  

This meeting failed to ignite the level of outrage that its mysterious organisers (who didn't want to be identified) clearly wanted - and thankfully community leaders, and representatives, were outspoken in their support for the new owners, and condemned the racist comments expressed by a small minority of objectors.

By coincidence, the Golders Green Hippodrome, in the sixties, was owned by the family of another Barnet blogger, the father of all Barnet bloggers, formerly known as 'Don't Call me Dave': David Miller, son of Lady Doreen Miller, the Tory peer. He told Mrs Angry that his family were very sad to see the Hippodrome fall into such a state of disrepair, and they are pleased that the building is now going to be put to good use.

But then of course, as one might expect, came the uninvited intervention of pantomime villain Katie Hopkins.

'Hatey Katey' was thrilled to find what she clearly thought would be a situation she could exploit for her own purposes: and she issued a series of tweets, some of them aimed at local Labour councillors Adam Langleben, and Arjun Mittra.

Well, then. Adam and Arjun are two of Barnet's brightest, and most hardworking younger Labour members. Adam is a leading member of the Jewish Labour Movement, and has put an enormous amount of effort into addressing the issue of anti-semitism; Arjun is Hindu, and an experienced councillor involved in all forms of community related ventures. They represent and reflect the true face of what is one of the most ethnically diverse local authorities in the UK: a place where residents from a huge range of cultures and religions live in harmony: Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Catholics, evangelical Christians: eastern Europeans, Japanese, Italians, Cypriots - and many other communities - the range is too diverse to list.

If there is division, in Broken Barnet, in fact, it is one of class, not ethnicity: between those who have, and those who have not - the ever widening gulf between the affluent areas of the borough, and the less advantaged, mostly western side, whose problems are addressed seemingly only by the Tory policy of faux regeneration, and decantation of the poor.

This is not what Hopkins wanted to find, of course: clearly astonished by the fact that the Jewish community has so emphatically rejected the politics of hate, and condemned the racist targeting of the Hippodrome proposals, she is wrong footed, and at a loss as how to continue with her agenda of bigotry. 

Back to the pantomime, in Hendon Town Hall: a little premature, perhaps: being the eve of Halloween, where our Tory members gamely played along, in the night of the living dead, acting out the usual Zombie politics: party loyalty and blind obedience before truth, justice, and decency, as we shall see. 

Before the proceedings began, a woman representing the Hindu community gave a short talk about her faith, the rule of karma, the eternity of the soul - and offered a prayer for peace. 

Shantih, shantih, shantih.

The Tory members looked on, and smiled politely. 

Peace does not come dropping slow, in the council chamber of Broken Barnet, however. 

Next up was the usual preposterous question time, and hostilities resumed, even as the prayers for conciliation still echoed in the ears of onlookers, as Tory councillors acted out the usual farce of non questions designed to a. boast how wonderful they are and b. claim how terrible is the opposition. 

The issue of the Hippodrome arose during these questions: the contentious petition launched by some objectors would not be heard at council, said Cornelius, due to lack of numbers, and the matter would be considered purely on planning grounds (shortage of parking is a potential problem) - and local Tory councillor Peter Zinkin went on angrily to denounce the Islamophobic comments of some of those who are so virulently opposing the plans. Labour leader Barry Rawlings agreed and stated that we will not be 'letting hate crime rule' in this borough. 

So far so good: a moment of consensus. If only peace, love and understanding had prevailed for the rest of the evening.

Mrs Angry had already decided not to stay for the whole meeting, dismayed by the intensely stupid contents of much of the second half of the agenda: not by the sensible motions from Labour, and one from Tory Rohit Grover in regard to road safety in his ward - but by the ludicrous decision, blithely ignoring all the really serious issues facing residents in the borough, to use the time to 'debate' two other motions from the Tories. One of these was from Alison Cornelius, wife of the Tory leader, on the subject of ... 'controlling' dog walkers, and the other ... from the ineffable David Longstaff: 

Is Mayor Khan an enemy of the people of Barnet?

What was the point of such a motion? Why such hostility levelled at the Mayor of London? Apparently for daring to intervene in a couple of planning applications*, the Uber issue, etc (*nothing and no one must be allowed a moderating role in the arcane mysteries of Barnet planning, of course). 

An Enemy of the People.

There are so many perjorative allusions here. And the Tories must have been well aware of this, when they decided to submit this motion.

Such a phrase is the mark of the new idiocy in right wing politics that has taken hold in the lunatic fringe of the media, here and in the US. 

As you will read in this article from the Washington Post, it is a term that has the most dark and shameful historic associations: from the designation of 'ennemi du peuple' at the time of  the French revolution's Reign of Terror, its adoption by Goebbels as part of his demonisation and persecution of the Jewish people, and its usage by Stalin, signalling a death sentence for intellectuals, artists - or any other citizen who displeased him.

What on earth possessed the Conservative group in Barnet to allow a motion with such deeply offensive undertones to be put to debate? And let us remember that they all voted to support it.

Ignorance of the historical context is hard to believe - and no excuse. In these dangerous times, great care and sensitivity should be employed when elected representatives raise issues for debate - this motion, using these words, with clearly despotic connotations, as well as the nod towards contemporary alt-right lunacy, should never, never have been used.

Why employ such a phrase, even disregarding the historical context, in regard to a democratically elected politician, on such a feeble pretext as minor decisions on planning applications, and transport policy? 

Frankly it is absolutely clear, as the Labour group pointed out, that the deliberate use of such a repellent term is from the same bottom of the barrel scraping tactics as Zac Goldsmith's widely reviled election campaign. Not so much Lynton Crosby's dog whistle, as a total immersion in gutter politics.

Labour submitted an amendment which stated:

Council believes its elected members should be careful not to use coded language that portrays people of different backgrounds as "enemies" so that they are perceived as 'other' to everyone else.

And Cllr Arjun Mittra stood up to speak against the motion.

You can hear what happened next by listening to an audio recording here. Scroll down to Item 14.3.

From the very beginning, Cllr Longstaff launches into a frankly absurd and personally directed diatribe: he starts with a jibe at Cllr Mittra: 

'If he understood English, that would really help'. 

That was an utterly indefensible remark to make to anyone who happens to be of Asian heritage, but also ridiculous - Arjun Mittra is a highly intelligent, well educated, thoughtful and well spoken young man. David Longstaff, on the other hand, as you will hear, is unable even to pronounce the word 'redolent'.

Labour councillor for East Finchley, Arjun Mittra

Longstaff says that the form of criticism of his motion was disgusting and despicable. The phrase 'Enemy of the People', he claimed, was a play on the title of the work by Ibsen. Really? Then he should know that Ibsen's play is about the struggle to hold a morally bankrupt local authority to account (- over contaminated water in the municipal baths - something which could never happen in Broken Barnet, of course).

Longstaff continued: he denied any 'coded language' in regard to Sadiq Khan. He trotted out an arch routine claiming there were no differences between the two of them, both South London boys, working class fathers, both went to university. Of course the obvious difference of race and religion, an issue exploited by the vile Goldsmith campaign, was entirely omitted.

Cllr Mittra's turn. He made a passing, less than complimentary reference to his Tory opponent's former acting career, which infuriated Longstaff - but swiftly moved on to a rather more important point: in the aftermath of the murder of Jo Cox, and the alleged plot regarding another MP, we should be more conscious of the impact of inflammatory political speech. 

The noise in the chamber tells you how divisive and inflammatory this motion was, and is. The outrage, however, on the Tory side, is audibly from Cllr Longstaff, driven into a fury by the disparaging comments about his professional record as an actor.

Well. What can you say? Arjun Mittra's comments were arguably a little unfair. 

Councillor David Longstaff's calling as An Actor, stand up comedian, and model, has, in fact, been an honourable one: extensive, and ... varied in scope. 

We know this because when he first emerged from the wings, so to speak, on the stage at Hendon Town Hall, Mrs Angry came across his CV on the website of his casting agency, and was enormously thrilled to find the details of his illustrious career. 

Sadly, this website disappeared. Or so it seemed. But no! Good news: the agency has a new name and there, still, for all of us to enjoy, is the record of a life in the business that is show. There is a wonderful compilation of footage of some of the best performances. Do take a look.

You know, Mrs Angry, in her time, has been fortunate to see many theatrical legends in action. 

Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Gambon; yes, Arthur Askey, and Danny La Rue. 

But nothing they gave in their interpretations of Pinter, Chekov, Shakespeare - or Mother Goose, could measure up against say, Cllr Longstaff as 'Beige Man in Ikea', (ad) or Drunken Elf, in Holby City. 

Who could forget witnessing his small part in 'Mary Whitehouse', a stirring performance as Mr Smallwood? Not me.

Cllr Longstaff has also given a marvellous rendition of local Finchley benefactor Inky Stephens, as you can see in the listing's footage (scroll down to the bottom ... then fast forward to The Bottom). Yes, Inky Stephens, who gave us Victoria Park, part of which the Tories sold off, and which came perilously close to being developed, earlier this year:

"Come: I'll show you my tree ..." (Not Mr Smallwood, again: Inky Stephens. One of the more memorable lines in this epic production).

And yes: lest we forget, perhaps his most memorable and long term role, (other than his role play contract as Mayor of Broken Barnet, once upon a time): as an Oscar statuette, naked, and covered in gold body paint, like that poor dear girl in 'Goldfinger'.

But Longstaff has given up the stage - or the stage has given him up - and he now wants to be taken seriously in his role as an elected representative - and, oh dear, as Chair of the Community Leadership Committee ...

Fair enough: if you want to be taken seriously, Councillor Longstaff, probably don't put forward puerile motions insulting the most important politician in London, who has been placed in that position with the most resounding endorsement of the residents of our city. 

Something we most certainly should take seriously is the role played in this tawdry drama by the Tory leader, Richard Cornelius, and the chorus of disapproval extras sitting in the Conservative side of the chamber. They really should know better than to allow such a motion to go to debate. Why did they - especially at a time when at least some of them had shown such courage in speaking out in favour of the Muslim community centre?

Here is the reason. Because this council is run, as in Ibsen's play, by the masters of a morally bankrupt authority: Barnet Tories are desperate to avoid the looming defeat at next year's local elections, and to fend off the very real chance of losing three newly marginal Tory constituencies at the next General Election. Desperate because everything they have promoted, over the last few years, is falling apart, and being exposed as a total con - a betrayal of their electorate. This summer's external Audit report confirmed, in no uncertain terms, the perilous state of the authority's financial position, heading towards disaster, ransacking the reserves as the Capita contracts, rather than saving us bucketloads of money, and delivering better services, is proving nothing less than a cash cow for the contractors, while functions such as planning and enforcement are now so bad, even the most docile of conservative minded residents are questioning the wisdom of returning the current administration to power. 

Barnet Tories are now launched on a Trump style mission to distract, therefore. It is no coincidence that at the same time they were cutting public services, they spent nearly £1 million on new PR posts, to carry on up until the elections next May. 

Yep, they invented the term 'fake news', by the way. No one knows more about it than they do. 

These new PR lackeys are part of a propaganda machine that relentlessly churns out the most deathly council spin, and publishes (at our expense) the overtly party political council news 'Barnet First'. The same machine tries to convince residents that the hugely unpopular library cuts are not cuts, or even a'configuration', or a 'refurbishment', but an 'investment'; the same machine manufactures outrage over the closure of a police station in a Tory ward, and a perceived lack of policing, when they refused to tackle Boris Johnson's police cuts for Barnet, when he was Mayor. (In fact they blamed the police, not Boris, see here).

Last week some of us went to the latest in a series of 'question times' with the Tory leader, Richard Cornelius. Ill advertised, so as to minimise attendance, of course - but every resident present made it clear, to an increasingly flustered Cornelius, that there is no longer any chance of fooling the voters of this borough. 

They are now seeing the outcome of so many years' ideological obsession with privatisation, council tax freezes, faux regeneration, and the widening of the gap between those who have, and those who have not. 

They have lost patience with the trio of Tory MPs in Broken Barnet who support a merciless government, sit back, and do nothing to help those in their constituencies with desperate needs; and they have lost all faith in is the heartless, gutless, shameless Tory councillors who run this borough. 

They know who the enemy is, in short. 

And they know it is not the Mayor of London.