Sunday, 1 July 2012

The destruction of the London Borough of Barnet

The Tory response to the economic downturn
Last night, I had a vivid demonstration of the collapse of the infrastructure supporting families within the London Borough of Barnet. Let me explain. My son plays for Watling Youth FC. Every year at this time the club holds it's awards night. Last year the event was held at the Mill Hill Sports Club. The requirements for the venue is that it has to be able to hold 40-50 boys aged 7-12 and their parents/carers/ friends. Experience has taught us that it is better for all if we have the awards at a venue with an area outside for the boys to kick a ball around, whilst the parents have a drink and a chat. The Mill Hill Sports Club was idea, with it's large grounds and clubhouse.

Fast forward 12 months. This year, the venue is shut. The London Borough of Barnet has taken the site to house a new school. So where could we go? The only suitable venue we could find was in the London Borough of Harrow, at the Canon's Community Hall. The evening (as ever) was a fantastic success with all the parents and boys thoroughly enjoying themselves.

As I sat there I pondered the fact that a club such as Watling could not find a single suitable venue in the London Borough of Barnet. How ironic that the venue we used last year is being transformed into a school. It is a graphic demonstration of the destruction of the London Borough of Barnet by this administration. There is a chronic shortage of school places, so they have to rob land from community organisations, such as the Mill Hill Sports Club, to fill the gaps. What this means is that they can fulfill their legal obligation to educate children, but there is absolutely nothing for them to do outside school hours.

I may hear supporters of the administration saying "but there are no suitable sites in Barnet for the schools". This is (or was) complete nonsense. In Mill Hill these are three school sites which are currently being redeveloped as property developments, which were formerly school.

1) St Josephs College on Lawrence Street. This huge site was formerly owned by the Roman Catholic church and was used to train students as Catholic Priests. It is a huge site.

2) Holcombe House. This was also owned by the Roman Catholic Church and housed the Missionary Institute. It offered theological training and was used by people studying to degree and masters level.

3) Littleberries. This was the former site of St Vincents School, which moved over the road. The site used to house a single form entry primary school.

All of these sites are designated as educational establishments, but the London Borough of Barnet showed no interest in the sites. They all have access to extensive lands and are in beautiful locations. If developers get their way, they will exploit these locations to build prime real estate.

But we are getting two new schools. We are getting the Etz Chaim Free School in the former Daws Lane Garden Centre, which was originally Mill Hill Swimming pool and was given to the people of Mill Hill as a gift for the sole purpose of provision of recreational facilities for the general public. We also have the Mill Hill Sports Club development. Barnet have also sold off huge parcels of land around Fairway and Broadfields schools, which could have been used to accomodate growth.

The mayhem doesn't end there. We have the huge Mill Hill East development, currently going up. This is a small town and will have it's own school. Rather sadly, the two nearest pubs to the site. The Angel and Crown and the Mill have recently shut to be replaced by yet more developments. The Mill is a particular loss, given it's beautiful Garden, which was used by many families in summer months for a pleasant pint. Both pubs were also regularly used as venues as part of the Mill Hill Music Festival.

In all of this there is a pattern. Property developers identify non residential sites such as pubs, schools, etc which provide valuable community facilities. They know that if they can get the planning consent flipped from educational usage to residential, they will make a fortune. As the pattern repeats itself across the Borough, more families are housed and the requirement for more school places increases. As the educational sites have been redeveloped, the council has to look at it's portfolio of properties and as they place no social value whatsoever on recreational activities, they know these are soft targets for conversion into schools.

I tried to instigate a campaign against the loss of the Mill Hill Sports club, but no one wants to deprive children of an education. Local people bought the council line that it was "the only possible site". I have learned from bitter experience that a campaign that local people are not interested in, is a complete waste of time.

In recent days, this blog has been focussing its attention on the One Barnet project and the One Barnet project board. When I first heard the then Council Leader, Mike Freer MP describing the One Barnet program, I was quite excited. Mike explained that it would bring together all parts of Barnet, to ensure a co-ordinated approach to running the borough. He explained that the Police, NHS, educational authorities and business would be involved and the council would have a balanced strategy. Even more radically, Mike explained that he had paid for the Trades unions to engage a top expert, Dexter Whitfield to advise them on the project, so that they could add constructive input. The Barnet Unison rep, John Burgess was initially sceptical, but the fact Barnet Council had paid for him to have access to such a figure, made John feel that there may be the basis of a very constructive process. Mike explained at a business breakfast that One Barnet would not simply be a "big outsourcing project". It would encourage efficiency by cooperation, would deliver better services for less money and would include all strands of opinion in the formation of policies. He pointed to the appontment of Dexter Whitfield as proof of his good intent.

The whole process has unravelled. Dexter Whitfield delivered his taxpayer funded report. It damned the whole process and showed it to be ill thought out, badly managed and risky. Mike Freer reacted in the most stupid way possible. Rather than seek to address the weaknesses, Freer rejected the report out of hand and withdrew to his bunker. In my blog earlier this week, I commented that the lack of transparency of the One Barnet board meetings and the membership of the board was a threat to democracy. Not because of any reservation about the individual members, but because there is a board of people talking about reshaping the Borough, none of whom are elected representatives and none of whom have any democratic mandate for what they are doing.

We also have the issue of the people who aren't represented on the board. There are no representative from small business. There are no representatives from the charitable sector. There are no representatives from any sort of environmental groups. There are no representatives from any of Barnets ethnic or religious communities. Most of all there is on one who is a single, one parent family living in social housing and on benefits and a child who is in trouble with the police. You may thing "what a stupid statement, what could someone who is a a single, one parent family living in social housing and on benefits and a child who is in trouble with the police, possibly add to the conversation about the future of Barnet?" Well, if you think about it, such a person is the person who actually has first hand experience of all of the failings of all of the organisations on the list of board members (as of my FoI request in 2010). 

•    Tom Nathan, Commercial Director, Brent Cross Shopping Centre
•    Cameron Ward, Chief Executive, NHS Barnet
•    Stephen Knight, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Middlesex University
•    Neil Basu, Borough Police Commander
•    Marilyn Hawkins, Principal, Barnet College

Lets think this through. Of the One Barnet Board, our single parent would probably have the odd shopping trip to Brent Cross, but the fact they are on benefits either means that Brent Cross cannot offer cost effective employment, or it has destroyed local jobs in local shops which may provide a way out of the benefit culture.  Our single parent would presumably have experience of the NHS. Would their experiences be positive or negative. I'm lucky enough to have an excellent medical practice at the Millway surgery, who I have no issues with at all. I had different expereinces with Barnet Hospital and my mother when she was ill.

As to the people from Barnet College and Middlesex University. These are the best paths out of poverty and  benefits, but are people in such situations actually able to contemplate using such establishments. Are course structures accessable? I don't know and I doubt whether the people on the One Barnet board really know if the people they should be reaching see education in this light.

Then there is the Barnet police. I may be wrong or naive or even out of touch, but I wonder if the Borough Commander has ever considered popping in for a cup of tea with the mum of an young offender, to see what she thinks of the police in a private and non confrontational situation? I believe that one of the main victims of the Coalition cuts is some of the outreach work that the Met Police were doing. I believe this is false economy.

And then there is Nick Walkley. Does he ever nip around to visit the single mums of Barnet, to see what they think of the services his organisation provides?

The One Barnet board has been in existence for six years. What has it delivered? Has the strategic thinking improved in Barnet? Are we getting the big decisions right? Are we providing an environment where Barnet is becoming a better, safer and healthier place to bring up children? The answer for me was answered last night when I had to visit the London Borough of Harrow for mys sons football team to receive their awards.

The Barnet Alliance for Public Services  (BAPS) and Barnet UNISON have organised a conference to highlight the problems with the One Barnet Program. If you care about the future of the London Borough of Barnet, please come along

Barnet Council Not for Sale’ Conference 7 July 12—3pm - Saturday 7 July Barnet  Greek Cypriot Centre, Britannia Road, Britannia Road, North Finchley, London N12 9RU.

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