Saturday, 16 November 2013

Bohemia - A sad debacle with no winners

Last night, High Court bailiffs, supported by the police, evicted members of the Occupy movement who had been in residence for the last six weeks, operating a community centre on the premises. According to the claim made to the High Court, the eviction has cost the leaseholder £23,000 in costs. As far as I understand, the occupiers had been cooperating with Landlords and showing tenants around. There was no suggestion that damage had been caused by the occupiers, in fact they have made improvements and as anyone with property will know, it is better to have someone in a building. The Occupiers had also offered to peacefully vacate if a tenant was found.

Many texts and messages I received showed a degree of anger at Police for a very heavy handed approach.I find it quite interesting to read about the huge resources invested by the police in the operation. I wish they had mounted a similar operation when an elderly neighbour of mine was burgled last year. I don't blame the police for enforcing the law. When it comes down to it, that is there job. I do question the priority they put on this operation. In effect the taxpayer subsides an operation to close down a community project, for the benefit of a private Landlord. I wonder how many other private Landlords will be receiving such police help when they want awkward tenants evicted.

A senior Police officer I know informed me that the cost of the operation at the Bohemia yesterday was likely to have cost in excess of £5,000 in planning and execution. His view was that the operation was necessary to send a message that the law will be enforced in Barnet. When the occupiers told the press that they believed in Civil Disobediance, the operation and scale became inevitable. In effect the statement was a challenge to the forces of law and order and to the jurisdiction of the High Court. In his view, any such statement, in the face of High Court judgement, will always receive such a response. He also made a comment which I found interesting to say the least. He said the local Police would have seen the operation as an excellent opportunity to test their procedures and operational readiness. They would have been fully aware that the occupiers were unlikely to be violent or aggressive. As such it is a great chance to make sure things work properly, so if there is a situation where a "hard" response is required, everyone knows what they are doing. I suggested that most Barnet residents would prefer a training exercise against Burglars, human traffickers or local gangs. His response was that the Bohemia was a far more useful operation as it was "unusual" and had considerations unlike most police operations, not least local interest and anticipation. So if you were in anyway involved with the Bohemia, you can sleep soundly knowing you've helped the Barnet Police maintain their operational readyness against the forces of anarchy and public disorder.

Then lest consider the Landlords - Mitchells and Butler. This is what is somewhat disengeniously known as a "Pubco". You would think that with such a name, they would be interested to explore the concept of a community pub and may have considered it worthwhile working with the community to explore options to do this. Sadly the plonkers who run Mitchells and Butlers have no concept of what a community pub really is. I spend much of my life in pubs. I love them. Mitchells and Butlers own many pubs in the London Borough of Barnet. Examples that are successful are The Orange Tree and The Arkley. When we say successful, we of course mean financially as opposed to as pubs. The M&B model is not actually a pub. It is a food outlet that sells beer as a sideline. The last thing they want is someone like me to turn up with my mates and drink ten pints of guinness and talking football all night. They certainly don't understand the concept of the community pub. When M&B took over my local, the Three Hammers, they did sseveral things. They removed Sky Sports and the Darts Board. They banned children. They banned dogs from the premises. They also evicted the Mill Hill Jazz Club. Those of you who don't know the Hammers, it was a thriving community pub prior to M&B. It is next door to the Retail trust, which is an establishment for the elderly. Many families would come to bring their elderly relatives for a meal. As children were banned, this trade virtually stopped. The Hammers is on a popular walking route, being adjacent to Totteridge Valley. Dog walkers were banished. The Mill Hill Jazz club, which had been successfully running on a Wednesday night for years was kicked out, as it didn't "fit the profile of the pub". The Darts players were evicted, many who had been patrons for decades. People who would meet to watch football were also evicted. The Pool table disappeared. In short, whole local communities of friends were effectively abandoned. The pub were chasing a new market. One who wanted to eat bog standard pub food, have a half of lager and then drive home. I drink in the Hammers every Thursday with my football team. It has been styled as a bad hotel lounge. The staff are mainly teenagers (some are children of friends) on minimum wage, working with minimum motivation.

Contrast that with the vibrant social scene which was developing at the Bohemia. If I was a director of M&B, I'd have come down and checked out the Open mic nights and other activities being organised. If that had been incorporated into an establishment with cheap, healthy food and inexpesive beer, they would have been onto a winner. Although many pubs around the country are failing, there are plenty that are bucking the trend. They do this by catering for their community. The M&B model is a "one size fits all solution". They have put the postcode of the Hammers into their "demographic profiling" system and it's popped out a solution. It takes no account of the local walkers, elderly, darts and pool players, who used the pub for years. The Bohemia under the Antic Brand had the potential to be a superb pub. It was however suffering from massive under investment. It was an ideal venue for music, but there was no soundproofing, so this was impossible without alterations and upsetting neighbours. A small investment could have fixed this. There was also huge amounts of space which were totally unused. Any company which has aspirations to succeed must continulaly think of new ways to regenerate their business model and stay ahead of the game. It is clear that M&B have run out of ideas. Last Wednesday, I did a pub crawl around the London Bridge area. The pubs we visited were all proper pubs and all busy. We started at the Market Porter in Borough Market. This is how a pub should be. There is a place for the M&B model, it works well at The Orange Tree, but please can we have our proper pubs back?

So as I survey the fallout of the Bohemia debacle, it is clear that we've all lost. The taxpayer has had to fork out £5,000+ for a Police operation. The Police have wasted a day on achieving nothing, whilst burglary, human trafficking, Cannabis Farms, Brothels and Gangs run riot. Mitchell and Butlers have missed a golden opportunity to develop a new model that may have made them millions and if it hadn't would have cost them virtually nothing. The High Court have come out of the debacle also looking unduly harsh. I don't understand why they didn't give the Occupiers a week to make an orderly departure and saved us the cost of a Police operation. The occupiers who were living at the Bohemia have been kicked out onto the streets in the middle of a very chilly spell. The local community has lost the chance to have a great resource.

I am also saddened to read some of the comments left on twitter and newspaper websites. I run a successful business. I employ people and I have done this by looking and learning and talking to my customers. Sadly many of the gloaters have no experience of this and no understanding of what a fantastic opportunity has been missed. The Friern Barnet Community Library showed what can be achieved when people work together. Sadly that was a lesson which seems to have completely passed Mitchells and Butlers by.

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