Friday, 6 September 2013

Friern Barnet Library - Occupied and Open - The anniversary celebration and book launch

The day Councillor Robert Rams closed Friern Barnet Library
Since I started writing blogs, there are a few things I am proud of. One of the things I am proudest of is my involvement with the campaign to save Barnets libraries and in particular my part in reopening Friern Barnet library. For those of you who are new to the story, the Barnet Eye launched the "Save Barnets Libraries" Campaign in August 2010, in response to the launch of the "Strategic Libraries Review" by right wing nutcase couuncillor Robert Rams, who announced at the time that people could get books from Tescos and read them in Starbucks. We collected 7,000 signatures in short order and managed to put enough pressure on the council to ensure they backed away from the threatened slash and burn attack on this vital public service. Sadly Councillor Robert Rams needed a sacrificial lamb to the gods of right wing lunacy, and so Friern Barnet Library was deemed "expendible". In a decision so crass and ill thought out that even the normally moribund Tory backbenchers started to awake from their slumbers, it was announced that there would be a landmark library at the Arts Depot in Finchley, to replace the much loved community resource at Friern. Sadly Rams hadn't bothered to see if this was workable or practical. He didn't consult the local community and in April 2012, at despicably short notice, the Library was shut.

The Barnet Eye could not stand by. We announced that we would be opening the Peoples library on the village green, next to the Library on the Saturday (this was on the Thursday). We said we'd be bringing down books and asked anyone else with spare books to come along. When I made this rash announcement, I was worried that I would be on my own, with my pasting table. There was neither time to organise or people onboard. What happened next was magical. Saturday came and over 500 people turned up. Some broughT gazebo's some bought books, the Royal British Legion brought hot teas and locals baked cakes. It was a glorious day and the impromptu carnival was a roaring success. We acquired a stock of several hundred books. I was stunned at this response. It was agreed that the Friern Barnet Peoples Library should be run by the Save Friern Barnet campaign. It was held weekly for four weeks, then monthly throughout the summer.

It became a focal point for the campaign and allowed momentum to be built up. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the campaign was that we built up a decent stock of books. This was to prove key in what happened next. The Peoples library caught the imagination. The BBC One Show came down. They asked me to visit a community library in Oxfordshire, as the founder of the Peoples Library. I declined to go and suggested that a member of the Save Friern Barnet Library campaign went. I did this because I did not want the story to be about Roger Tichborne or the Barnet Eye. Martin Russo from the campaign did the visit, although I gave a brief interview to the show.

On 5th September 2012, I got a call. We were in the final throes of filming Barnet - The Billion Pound Gamble. Squatters had taken over the library. I shot up there with Charles Honderick and found a couple of people peering out of the window. They didn't have much to say. We spoke to the Barnet Security guards who announced that there were squatters in the building and they had disabled the alarm. We ascetained that the the squatters were associated with the Occupy movement and they were interested in reopening the library. There wasn't much else to the story, so it seemed. The following day, the story had changed. It appeared that there was a spokesman from Occupy on site. Immediately I made my way back. This was the first time I met Pete Phoenix. He'd never heard of the Barnet Eye or the Peoples Library. We immediately hit it off. I knew what needed to be done. We had a stock of books and a campaign. We needed to get the library open with the Peoples library stock of books. As I was not part of the campaign, I had no say as to whether this could be done. Some members of the campaign were initially reticent, but this was soon overcome. The Library had a 1,000 books to start with. In a remarkably short time, the whole thing came together. The library opened its doors and the community and occupiers hit the national press.

Then an even more remarkable thing happened. Barnet Council made contact with the Occupiers and a series of meetings were held, to see if there was a way forward. I attended these meetings in good faith, as did members of the community and the occupiers. It seemed that a compromise could be found. After a series of cordial and productive meetings, things seemed to be moving. Then out of the blue, Barnet Council, in an act of extreme bad faith, launched legal proceedings to evict the occupiers. The community was stunned. It was a huge breach of trust. It was clearly a political decision, but a very stupid one.

A date for the court case was set. The council asked for a ten minute hearing. They assumed that a simple eviction order would be granted. I turned up at the Court, with about 50 other local activists. The legal representative from Barnet Council was clearly out of his depth. The case was immediately adjourned. A new date was set. Barnet Council agreed that half an hour would be long enough. Different day, same result. Eventually it was conceded by Barnet Council that a full two day hearing was needed and that this was not simply repossession of a building which was being squatted.

The case itself was a real roller coaster ride. The Judge clearly had sympathy with the community. It was clear to all that the Council had behaved atrociously. It became clear that the Council had "got it wrong". The judge, wisely brokered a compromise. The Council could have its possession order, but the community had been given an opportunity to formalise the "community library". The Council agreed to negotiate a license with a "board of trustees". It was agreed that the Occupiers would vacate the building and the community would take over.

At this time of the Jewish new year, I am reminded of the biblical story of Abraham making to sacrifice his beloved son to the Lord, when at the last moment, the Lord spared him. Friern Barnet Library was the sacrificial lamb to the gods of right wing luncacy. The Judge spared the community from this loss, in a wise and sensible judgement.

The community now run the library and the council are working on a proper arrangement. I have stepped back. Friern Barnet is the other side of the Borough from my manor. I support the Library in whatever way I can, but it should just be one of a number of public assets. There are many community heroes on this story. The library would not be open without Occupy, so they should take the lead at the curtain call. The Barnet bloggers did what we could, Save Friern Barnet Library campaign were pivotal and then all manner of individuals. Perhaps most notable amongst these was Keith Martin, a local pensioner, who attached his name to the Court case, at great financial risk, to show that the case was not Barnet Council vs a bunch of troublemakers from outside the Borough (as the Council were trying to make out).

Last night, we saw a launch party for a book edited by Rosie Canning (one of the many local campaigners who participated in the campaign) at the Library. Rosie has taken a whole host of accounts of the library and edited them into a coherent story. On the anniversary of the occupation, there were a number of readings from various people associated with the campaign.

The party was a joyous event. I haven't been back to the Library since the handover to the trustees.  I thought the most important thing was for the Library to be for the local community. Last night, it was clear to me that we have achieved something rather special. The library was packed with people from all creeds and colours, old and young, to celebrate a joyous victory for the forces of reason over the dark forces controlled by the bean counters who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Don't let anyone ever tell you that "protest is pointless". When I announced that we'd be holding the Friern Barnet Peoples library, a certain Barnet Councillor reportedly commented that "it will be the same old bunch of disaffected left wing types, congratulating each other at managing to get twenty people to stand on the lawn outside the library".  When this was reported to me, I simply said "lets see where we are in a years time before we make any rash comments". That was April 2012. That Councillor lost his GLA seat, assaulted a local businesswoman and was kicked out of the Conservative Party. In the meantime, the Library has repopened and is going from strength to strength. Checkout this video -

When I started writing this blog, I started to make a list of all of the people I thought should receive a mention. I realised that there were dozens, half of whom I don't even know the name of. Each one had a vital role. A community works because it is a community, so I just wish to express my pride in everyone involved and my hope that we stay united as a community.

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