Tuesday 5 September 2017

Fiasco at Barnet Council - The Darlands Lake sell off

Lets start with a few documentable facts. Last week, I wrote a blog entitled Flog It! Live from Barnet Council - The Darlands Lake sell off -

in response to this, I received an email containing a statement from Cllr Stock, of the Totteridge concerning this blog, suggesting that it may allay my fears.

“For over 20 years there has been increasing concern by local community that the Darlands Nature Reserve was falling into disrepair under the care of the London Borough of Barnet (LBB). It is of paramount importance to protect both the fauna and flora as well as the lake totally silting up. There is also a fear that developers could one day encroach on this most treasured sanctuary.
In 2000 the Totteridge Residents’ Association, the Totteridge Manor Association, the Mill Hill Preservation Society together with other local community groups organised the Millennium May Fayre, with the objective of raising money for the future restoration and protection of the Darlands. The monies raised are still available. In 2016 the above named groups together with The London Wildlife Trust and Totteridge and Mill Hill councillors got together to form the Darlands Trust.
The sole purpose of setting up this new charity will be to preserve Darlands Nature Reserve for future generations to enjoy. The LBB is keen to find the right way of protecting important leisure and environmental assets whilst minimizing the burden on council tax payers. Granting a long lease to a charitable organisation under strict conditions would ensure the Darlands will continue as a valuable ecological and environmental asset, whilst the LBB will still remain the freeholders of the land.
The Darlands Trust is well aware of the need for adopting a sensitive approach to any works undertaken and will not alter any access or rights of way. Apart from employing relevant experts as required, any work will be under the oversight of a number of agencies including, particularly, the environment agency.
This is going to be a local community project and its success will depend on everyone coming together to raise the necessary money and offer their expertise and support to protect what is a real jewel in the crown of the Totteridge Green Belt.”

This was, as I understand it, in specific response to the question I asked to the Assets and Regeneration committee, chaired by Councillor Daniel Thomas.

"I note the proposal to outsource management of Darlands Lake to an unspecified third party. Given the abject failure of previous outsourcing. Excesses ( Your Choice Barnet multi million bailouts, parking fiasco enforcement problems as documented by D. Dishman, chaos in IT, multi million court cases with Care Homes, huge hidden charges exposed in the One Barnet contract by John Dix, the illegal operation of Metpro,etc), what possible confidence can the Barnet Tax payer have that this outsourcing of a vitally important nature reserve won't end in yet another expensive fiasco." 
The committee met today and prior to the 7pm meeting, I was emailed a response. This was sent at 14.42 today.
"As identified in the paper the lease of Darlands Nature Reserve will be accompanied by a separate agreement which will set out the maintenance requirements for the reserve and the requirement to ensure general public access is maintained. The site would be subject to monitoring, in order to ensure that both the agreement noted above and the lease are both adhered to."

(There were over 70 other questions submitted to the council in advance of the meeting) I turned up to the meeting, just as it was starting at 19.02. Sadly I hadn't seen the email with my answer on. I've actually been away over the last 2 weeks, on a cruise around the Caribbean (Cuba, Mexico, Jamaica, etc) and only got back  yesterday at 7pm after 22 hours travelling (I know, poor me). I had a series of meetings at the studio today, then I had a chat with a member of my staff, who has been off as his new born baby had a bout of viral meningitis. Thankfully all was well, but I prioritise some things above blogging about Barnet Council.   I hadn't looked at my email, as it would have been rude in the circumstances. I didn't anticipate this being a problem as the Council always print copies of responses and report packs for the public. My cunning plan was to read the response when I arrived (not an unreasonable plan).

I was actually quite surprised to see the meeting was packed. The council had published the agenda in the middle of the holiday period and so I wasn't sure if the public knew what was going on. This is a standard council tactic for anything remotely dodgy or unpopular. I always watch meeting agendas like a hawk (even when on holiday) during such periods. It is a classic Barnet Council tactic, when they don't want people to be too aware of what they are up to. I suspected that, other than the 1,000 or so people who read the specific blog post, not many would even know this was being proposed.

So anyway, back to the meeting. As I said above, I was a bit unprepared, I didn't even have my iPAD, which I usually use to make notes etc. Following the receipt of the email containing Cllr Stock's statement, I had been rather more relaxed about the proposal. It seemed maybe I was being over suspicious. It was clear to me that this was the result of a well meaning group of local residents, many of whom I know, wishng to protect the nature reserve. What is not to like about such public spirited behaviour? My main concern was the lack of transparency and whether the proposal may be a Trojan horse that opened the door to a less charitable and well meaning bunch.

The chariman of the committee, councillor Daniel Thomas, got things off by saying he'd like to extend the public questions section of the meeting but couldn't because of the council constitution. They've been saying this for the last nine years. Odd that no councillor has ever thought to propose amending the constitution at the AGM, giving the chairman the right to extend the meeting if large numbers of questions. But that might improve transparency and democratic oversight, so not going to happen in Barnet.

Councillor Thomas invited a nice chap from "the consortium bidding" (didn't catch his name) up to explain to all what they were proposing. Now I have no criticism of this chap. I admire such members of the community. Sadly, the public could't hear what he was saying, as for some reason, the microphone system mysteriously stopped working. There was much unrest from the public. Many had turned up to hear and most had no clue what was being said.  Councillor Thomas suggested that anyone who couldn't hear come to the front (as I'm 6'1 and a big fat slob, I thought it would be impolite to get in everyone elses way). Given that the meeting was packed, this wasn't really the most intelligent solution. Several members of the public suggested an adjournment. Cllr Thomas was having none of it. This was "important business" and it couldn't wait. Anyway, the public were simply there to watch. They have no role in democracy in Barnet. After the nice chap made his speech, several members of the committee questioned him. The most effective was Cllr Coakley-Webb. She had a string of questions. I heard some of them. Her chief concerns was that the plan seemed to be very sketchy. She asked about how the new committee could measurably improve things, when there had been no audit of what was there. She asked other questions about the democratic accountablity of the new set up. The nice chap explained that it was a "chicken and egg" stiuation and that they couldn't make a plan till they had the lease (I surmised). Councillor Langleben also asked a few questions about accountability. Again, I couldn't really discern the response. Given the follow ups from Councillor Langleben, I surmised that he was not satisfied by it. It was also established that "the committee" would not serve as members representing the organisations mentioned by Councillor Stock, but as private individuals (somewhat contradicting Cllr Stocks statement above).

The nice chap also said the committee would form an organisation and have members. In frustration at the whole thing, I shouted "will the members be able to sack the committee". His answer seemed to be "yes at the AGM". The nice chap seemed far more relaxed taking questions from the public than Councillor Thomas.

The Purpose of the meeting was to pass a resolution to allow the committee chairman (and a council officer) to decide what to do, once a consultation period of 4 weeks had passed. So this was the one chance to reign in this attack on democracy. It was clear that the public felt that this was entirely wrong. A longer consultation period was needed and the committee should then vote seemed to be what the good people of Barnet wanted. I was very frustrated. As I've stated before, I have a hearing impairment. I'd given up watching an England game to sit in a room full of people, most of whom  couldn't hear what was going on (me included). The council hadn't printed off enough copies of the answers, so I'd no idea what to respond to the council answer to my question above. In all a farce. If Barnet Council took democracy and transparency seriously, they'd have adjourned the meeting, sorted out the clear issues and used the time to have a better proposal.

A steady stream of speakers stood up to explain why Darlands was an important site. For example, one chap was from  birdwatching collective. Again I couldn't really hear him, I'm not a  twitcher, so I didn't really understand the significance of much of what he appeared to be saying, but he clearly was not happy at the threat. Another person, who sadly I couldn't really hear was Clive Cohen from the London Wildlife Trust. Clive is a sound man, but like most of the people in the room, I really couldn't tell whether he was for, against or neutral to the proposal. 

So I was then invited up to ask my "supplemental question". I stood up and thought I'd make a point. I started by saying I applauded the public spirited people who had made the proposal. Then I stated that as a hearing impared person, who had not seen the council response, as there were not enough copies printed, I felt the council should adjourn the meeting and allow me to formulate a proper follow up question, as was my democratic right under the constitution. Councillor Thomas rather rudely stated that I'd been emailed the answer earlier in the day. I pointed out that some of us have jobs and can't spend all day reading emails. He also suggested that as I was deaf I should have stood at the front, I didn't feel that warrented a response and I found this extremely insulting. It is clear that the council does not take special needs seriously. As a semi deaf dyslexic, I'ce spent my life putting up with being smugly patronised, but it doesn't make it less annoying. It seems that I am a second class citizen, disenfranchised by the council. He then said "have you actually got a question?" I said yes, started to ask it. I got as far as saying that a local waterways expert had told me that the dredging Darlands lake as proposed by "the committee"  would be as follows

"from what I know of the place/history, would cost from £250K- £2m + to dredge and restore/maintain."
This means the figure could be far higher than those quoted by the nice man from "the committee". My expert also stated that with the run off from the Medical NMRC, the lake could be contaminated, and this would need thorough investigation. As I raised this, Councillor Thomas started to interrupt and hector me. He said I wasn't asking a question. I pointed out that I couldn't as he was rudely talking over me, during my allotted three minutest. He continued to talk. I challenged him "Are you going to actually let me ask my question". He continued to argue (doing his best to run down my three minutes). Eventually he shut up. I said "can councillor Thomas confirm whether they would accept the bid from on the basis of the most financially lucrative or the best for the environment". Councillor Thomas stated that they would only accept the best for the nature reserve.I asked "so if you were offered £5 million, you'd still take the best for the environment". Councillor Thomas said "Yes". Time will tell

A stream of other people asked supplementary questions. Sadly most of these I could only make out snippets of. It was clear that the public gallery was none too impressed. I've been to a lot of such meetings, but this was by far the most chaotic. Many of the people I'd never seen before, most of then were people more concerned with the environment than politics. Many were attending a meeting for the first time.

When it came to the voting on resolutions, I thought for a moment we'd see some common sense at a meeting. Councillor Cornelius, the Council leader said "I think we should listen to some of the concerns. We've waited 20 years to do something, a bit longer won't harm if it calms the fears of the opposition". He then proposed lengthening the consultation period from four to six weeks. Labour suggested that as "the committee" hadn't developed their proposals and needed to do more work, the decision should come back to the committee rather than be decided by Councillor Thomas and a Council officer. Their logic being that the time to delegate was when a proper proposal had been put in front of the ARG committee and they'd properly considered it.

Sadly, as ever all voting was on party lines and the Tories simply used their majority to bludgeon through their proposals. The public were disgusted. There is a precedent for this type of ill thought out decision. It dates back to the days of the Labour led administration in the late 1990's. The council wanted to help secure the future of Barnet Football Club, so they sold Underhill Stadium to the club at a knock down price. They put in a clause that if the club sold the ground, they'd have to give the council a share of the profits. The idea was that this meant the club would stay in Barnet. They also put in a clause that this expired after ten years. Guess what happened? The club waited ten years, then moved to Harrow, cashing in a tidy profit, none of which went to Barnet. An inquiry cost nearly a million quid and decided nothing. Such things make me rather cynical.

What will happen with Darlands Lake? Well, the committee has decided that this is up to Councillor Thomas. A man so committed to the Borough that he stood as a Tory Candidate in Wales a few months ago, in the general election. I have no reason to doubt the intentions of  "The Committee". I believe they want the best for the nature reserve. I know people like John Living and Dr Michael Worms, who will be trustees and they are decent people. What I also know is that Barnet Council want no public scrutiny of the deal. They want no discussion of the deal. They are not prepared to respect the public, who pay the taxes that run the council.  I have issued an FoI request as follows.


Dear FoI Barnet,

1.       Please supply all correspondence between the council and the committee proposing to manage Darlands Lake as per tonights Assets and Regeneration committee for the last 18 months.
2.       Please supply all correspondence between council officers on same subject in same period

Please redact names etc for privacy if necessary

Roger Tichborne


Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, suit
Councillor Dan Thomas Accepting the nomination for Islwyn Constituency
. One may ask why I am so cynical about this? The reason is that I recall the closure of Friern Barnet Library in 2012. The council announced their intention to close the library. They also engaged local  groups to come up with a proposal to keep the library open. After the period for officially lodging legal objections expired, they terminated these discussions.The library was then closed and the groups who had worked in good faith were told that the period for objecting had expired. since then, nothing would surprise me from this Tory Council. I dearly hope that "the committee" isn't a Trojan horse. But ask yourself this. What happens now. If the committee finds they can't raise the funds to renovate the lake and keep open public access? Suppose the cost of dredging the lake is £2million and they walk away? What happens then when a developer offers to do the work in exchange of 10% of the land and a lakeside hotel/club/ wedding venue with a road in? What happens to the migratory birds, rare reptiles, plants and amphibians?

I hope none of this comes to pass. But the decision is now solely in the hands of Councillor Daniel Thomas, a man who has been actively trying to be an MP in Wales for the last few elections. A man who was not born and raised in the Borough and a man who has shown his ambitions lie elsewhere. The trouble with sites like Darlands Nature reserve is that unless you have a long term commitment and love of your neighbourhood, they do seem like "low grade open spaces". Councillor Thomas tried to give the public gallery a lecture in why they should refrain from shouting comments when councillors were discussing "important matter". Given that he'd continually interrupted me when I tried to ask a perfectly reasonable, valid question, which I'd been invited to make was just a small sign of his hypocrisy. For the record, I was one of the only questioners who finished within the 3 minutes allocated. I have a message for Councillor Thomas. Respect is earned. If you want people to behave in a respectful manner, treat them with respect. I am big boy and I can easily deal with a playground bully like him trying to intimidate me and make me fluff my lines. Sadly, some of the other people at the meeting were rather more upset at this display of breathtaking arrogance. May I remind Councillor Thomas that he's supposed to represent electors, not insult and belittle them.

The bottom line on all of this is that the administration running Barnet Council have no regard for transparency or public engagement. It was clear to all that there was huge public interest, yet the public was treated to a display of breathtaking arrogance.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I write with regard to the transferal by lease too was at the meeting being part of those that were there on behalf of the Woodside Park Environmental Center (WPEC). We arrived at 5pm and held a demonstration outside the Town Hall. All of us very concerned for the future of Darlands Nature Reserve. Mr Cornelius came out to speak to us. He assured us that he was on 'our side'. That our interests for Darlands were also his interests. "We are all on the same side" he said with a smile. And then he said "I am just a simple man". He is not a simple man. He is a very clever leader of Barnet Council kind of man. Far from simple. Disingenuous? Certainly. But simple? No way. So this worried me a bit, because he was kind of lying to us, but he didn't appear to recognise this. Anyway, I spoke with him and he said to me "Ive waited over 16 years for this opportunity" so I said well what is your plan? And he said we need to dredge the lake and I said why? And he said "because it doesnt look nice" Now to be entirely fair on this, to some people it might not look nice, but to others it might. It may even need dredging. So I said what about the impact dredging might have on the wildlife? Has there been any research? He said there hadn't.
They don't know what is there. I have been walking in Darlands for 40 years. In the last 10 years I have been there thousands of times. It used to be every day. My wife still does go there every day. I've never seen Richard Cornelius there. I understand he might have been there and because of the wonder of Darlands I might not have seen him. But to have never seen him there - ever, or any of the other members who support this lease sale, that's no coincidence.
Last year the council changed the status of Darlands to a site of Low Quality - Low Value. It is quite clear that their interpretation of quality and value is flawed and incorrect. Darlands is of exceptional quality and exceptional value. Indeed, in my humble opinion, part of it could be ancient woodland. Many of the fauna, flora and funghi found on the south east side of the lake where the Folly brook runs are accepted as indicative of ancient woodland. For more on this visit https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk and http://www.countrysideinfo.co.uk. And the point is we need to know. We need a professional survey and report by a qualified Ecologist. Richard cannot organise this. He told me so.
We need an ecological report from an expert. We need to meet with legally astute environmental people. We need to go for a nice walk, on the road, from Darlands to Council Offices.

We are working to stop them. Now is the time. Let us all be part of the change.
D McCarthy (WPEC)