So at 6.30pm yesterday, I turned up in North Finchley to go to the Arts Depot to find out about the plans to regenerate North Finchley. Parking campaigner Helen Michael had invited me along to hear how we'd be allowed to spend £1.6 million of our own money, to boost the local High Street. I've been doing some research into the Outer London fund as a background to the trip. When Sayy, the consultant who is leading the program stood up she announced "Boris has given us £1.6 million to spend improving the High Street". I was a little bit irritated by this assertion. As far as I can make out from the GLA/Mayors finances, the money has been removed from the police budget to be reallocated to splash around the Boroughs, to fund areas that bid for cash, to generally tart the place up.
We've already had a substancial amount of money in Barnet. A large grant was given to Barnet, to improve the area around Barnet Church. Has this been a huge success? Not from what I can see or from what the locals tell me. Is taking money from police budgets, to "improve" High Streets a good way to spend our money? Again I am not convinced. Sally further irritated me with a reference to "mad old buggers beating the same drums" as a reference to people talking about issues in the locality. (Note : Sally has contacted me to correct this - She says she said "mad old buggers banging on the same old drum" - I must have misheard her) This irritated me on two levels. Firstly, if a problem exists and the council have failed to acknowledge it, then you have to "beat the same drum" it isn't madness, it is the only way you ever get anything done. let me give you an example. My father was a pilot for bomber command. These brave mens sacrifice was never recognised. No memorial and no campaign medal. Only in the last year has this terrible decision been overturned. My Dad died in 1987, and so it was too late for him and about 90% of the survivors. It is only mad old buggers beating the same drum that sorted it. The other level it upset me on is that I run a music studio and I have about 200 customers who are "mad old buggers who've been beating the same drum" for many a year". Nothing wrong with mad old buggers, especially drummers. Local bloggers also were referred to (as an irritation with lots of energy - thanks team ! ).
She then talked about unlocking the private and charity sectors, dividing large shops into smaller units and improving training and skills. Sally informed us that she doesn't like meetings and finds them draining. I thoroughly agree with her. I've been to hundreds of meetings about Barnet, just like this one and yes, she couldn't be more correct.
Next up we had Tracy Cooper of the Arts Depot. She talked about getting the word around about all of the great things the Arts Depot do. It is a fantastic space and a great resource. I don't think we need a grant from the Mayor to do this. She is right that the people of Barnet by and large are oblivious to what is on at the Arts Depot. It has always amazed me that they have never sought to work with bloggers etc to promote the shows etc that they have on. Check there Twitter feed - https://twitter.com/artsdepot - the last tweet promoting an arts event was the 22nd Feb, they should be tweeting their program on a daily basis. They currently have 3,603 followers. This is a derisory total for such a prestigious venue and shows a real lack of ambition to promote the place. Here you go guys, a free plug for your website. I'd urge everyone to keep an eye on the place as they do have good show.
Then we had Brenda Goldberg. Tracey is a lady who has got involved for all the right reasons. She talked about knitting groups, grandma and toddler groups and other community activities which would generate a sense of community. Tracey's heart is in the right place and we need people with her motivations to step up.
Next up was Helen Michael, owner of Cafe Buzz. Helen spoke about local community, then she let slip she wasn't allowed to talk on the subject of parking. A visible hiss went up. She outlined many positives for North Finchley and asked for people to get involved.
Then Sally lead the Q&A. I don't think this went to plan. Paul Shea of Tally Ho Discount raised parking. He stated that we've seen a 20-30% drop in High Street trade since the abolition of pay and display parking. Sally said this was all very well but outside the scope of the meeting.
A local architect asked why he hadn't been approached to contribute and who had selected the architects (who are not Barnet based). I couldn't understand the answer, it involved a transparent process and there being nothing to hide. The company chosen are MUF architects (unrelated to the diving school I believe), who are based in EC1 http://www.muf.co.uk/contact-2 - I'd prefer the work to have been allocated locally, but hey what do I know. There was also a quesion raised about the consulants fees and what percentage of the £1.6 million would this take up. Sally told us she gets £1,000 a month. Another lady told us her firm were getting £68,000. So we have identified a minimum of £82,000. I'd have preferred a lump sum figure.
Another question was asked about who decides how the money is spent. Again this was most unclear and no satisfactory answer was given. I am all for such funds, but I am always worried when there seems to be little accountability or democratic control.
There was also some disquiet amongst the disabled members of the audience at the proposal for trees to be planted outside the Arts Depot. They felt these may make accessibility more difficicult.
I also spoke. I explained that Barnet Council has failed to exploit the opportunity to engage with the local community via social media as they have an overriding need to control everything. I stated that I've invited councillors to write guest blogs on numerous occasions to no avail. I explained that the decision to exclude parking from the remit was nonsense. I even gave Dan Hope, blogger from the Barnet Bugle a plug for the sterling work he does videoing the council. The point is, If they invested in new cash pay and display meters this would be a massive improvement and boost trade far more than a few trees. The audience agreed, but the people with the dosh didn't. In Camden & other London boroughs, bloggers are invited to talk to the council and are the first to recieve press releases. Here they would strangle us if they could. (This morning I had breakfast with Helen Michael at Cafe Buzz. Paul Shea from Tally Ho Discount came in and said that Barnet now resembles North Korea).
At the end I was approached by a nice chap who chastised me for my negative attitude. I explained the history of the abolition of pay and display and why the scheme would fail unless this was addressed. I thena asked who he was. It turned out he worked for Boris.
Who am I? I am just a mad, sad bugger who keeps banging the same drum. What mandate do I have? None at all. Who listens to me? Well actually from the response I got, I rather suspect that quite a few people do.
This may all sound negative. I hope Sally does a good job and regenerates North Finchley. I just think that unless she persuades the council to properly engage with local people, it is a complete waste of time and cash and the money would have been better spent on coppers who could nick a few criminals and put a lid on street crime, which is becoming a scourge in Barnet. For what it's worth, I had a chat with Labour GLA rep Andrew Dismore and he agreed with everything I had to say.