The meeting was very well attended. I've been attending public meetings locally since the early 1980's and this was probably the best attended session with an MP since the public meetings held to discuss the closure of Edgware General Hospital in the mid 1990's. I know Hartley Hall well and there were well over 200 people in the hall. When I arrived, I saw a smattering of the people I always see at such meetings. Richard Logue, former chair of Mill Hill residents association, Val Duschintscky and and John Hart, our local Mill Hill Councillors. Jon Klaff, local cycling campaigner. Ben Samuel, local green party activist, members of the Mill Hill Preservation society and Neighbourhood forum, there were also neighbours and friends who normally avoided such meetings like the plague. There were also local traders and business owners, etc. I also saw maybe a hundred people who I didn't recognise. I am pretty good at recognising faces and it was clear that Mr Offord had struck a chord with people by offering a meeting to reassure them that the Police were on the case.
Joining Mr Offord on the panel was Barnet Police Borough commander Simon Rose, a WPC called Lisa (sorry didn't hear the surname if it was mentioned) who works in the Mill Hill Safer Neighbourhood team and a detective who's name I also missed. Normally at such meetings, the host (in this case Mr Offord) invites each panel member to say a few words about themselves and explain why they are on the panel at the start. To my surprise this was not done, hence I missed the full names.
The first thing the panel did was move the tables from the floor of the Harwood Hall to the stage, presumably in reaction to the huge crowd. The next thing that happened was very strange indeed. I had assumed that as it was a public meeting, anyone could attend. People signed in at the front desk. As the crowds gathered, Matthew Offord jumped down off the stage and confronted Ben Samuel, the local green activist. Ben had been sitting quietly with his notepad awaiting the start of the meeting. Offord asked him to leave. I later ascertained that this was because "the meeting was for Mill Hill residents, not political activists". Ben seemed rather bemused and upset. Initially he refused to leave. Matthew Offord then invited the Police officers down to assist in ejecting Mr Samuel. I have to say that their body language appeared to indicate that they were not comfortable with being embroiled in the row. Apparently after Mr Samuel was ejected, the doors were locked to the hall. I don't know if this was because the hall was full of to keep him out. It is fair to say that the local residents sitting near Mr Samuel were upset by this and a couple told me that they thought it was unnecessary.
A local Tory activist explained after that Mr Samuel had a chair, whilst old ladies were standing up. I asked why they didn't ask him to give up his chair and go to the back of the hall. I was told that as the Hall was full, he was depriving a "genuine Mill Hill resident" a place. Mr Samuel tweeted after the clash
I care a lot about this topic: Looking forward to catching up on how it went... "Public Meeting" on Wed, Feb 7 https://t.co/SN25lgmd39— Ben Samuel (@filosofical_140) February 7, 2018
I personally know Ben Samuel. Like many members of the Green party, he is a decent chap and cares about our community and the environment. I felt rather sorry for him and embarrassed about what happened. Anyway, as people had asked me to find out why he was slung out, I did and that is why.
Once the Hall was secured against Green infiltrators, Matthew Offord kicked off the meeting. He explained that he'd called the meeting in response to the recent violent incidents in Mill Hill and also the high level of burglaries reported. He stated that the panel would speak and then take questions. He then asked us to stand and observe a minutes silence for Vijay Patel, the murdered shopworker. He also stated that he wasn't going to make political points and asked the audience to refrain from doing so.
The silence was observed impeccably. When it was finished, Mr Offord said "I'd now like to ask the Borough Commander to outline what actions the Police are taking to address the spate of issues locally". To the amazement of everyone in the hall, Simon Rose, the Borough Commander, looked rather shocked and replied "What do you want me to say?" to Mr Offord. It became clear that the panel had not actually planned the event and Mr Offord hadn't briefed the Borough commander on the agenda or format. Offord, visibly irritated replied "I want you to tell the audience what the Police are doing about the incidents". Rose seemed rather surprised at this. I can maybe give some context that would be missing for many. I attended a meeting in December hosted by the Leader of The Council, Richard Cornelius. Commander Rose attended. Richard did a presentation and then referred questions to the Commander. I assume he was expecting a similar format. He was clearly unprepared. He reeled off a stream of stats showing that burglary was down, that the crime rate was static and that everything was just fine. He explained that Barnet is a burglary hot spot due to the large number of roads that make it easy for burglars to come down, rob us and be home for teatime in the home counties. He implied that because Mill Hill is a rich area, there's more to nick, therefore it is rather popular with burglars. He then stated that the spate of violent incidents were unrelated. The three youths involved in the death of Mr Patel were from outside the Borough and had been apprehended. Another individual had robbed Yogopink twice with a knife and also the BP garage. He had been apprehended. The third major incident in Station road was caused by an altercation between a "member of the travelling community" and a member of the public. They were all unrelated, except by location. It is fair to say that the mood in the hall had darkened. People clearly did not thing everything was ok.
Then the Q&A started. This was really rather disturbing. We had a whole stream of residents recounting awful stories of robberies and violence. A local doctor stated that he'd had his fake Rolex nicked by a Machette wielding thug. He explained that he was thinking of emigrating and asked for some reassurance. None was given. He also stated that he'd been told "only 40 officers were on duty that night" and asked if this low number was true. The commander stated "Oh no, it's much lower than that. At most 28, if no sickness and holidays".
Another told of a man attacking his front door with a sledgehammer, in the middle of the day, whilst his four young children were in the house. He asked whether the Police could "do anything or do we have to do it ourselves". Again there was no answer. A very well informed chap asked a detailed question concerning youth initiatives and whether with the huge increases in local population through HMO's and other large developments, the police have enough resources. The Borough Commander stated that resources are allocated according to various factors and population was one of these, so if the population of Mill Hill goes up relative to other areas, we'll get more resources.
One lady, clearly irritated by the whole event accused the Borough commander of looking like he'd rather be anywhere else but here. Mr Offord intervened and said that he'd defied the whips and come to Mill Hill, missing a parliamentary vote, he told the whip that the people of Mill Hill were more important. A half hearted round of applause (I suspect mainly from local Conservatives) resulted.
A gentleman stated that his road had paid for a private security patrol for the last ten years. This has recently stopped and there has been a spate of burglaries since (Note : There is a very active discussion on the Mill Hill Families facebook page on the subject of whether we should organise a cross Mill Hill private security service)
I had come to the meeting expecting a plan and details of what was being done. It was clear that there was no plan and it was pretty much business as usual for the Police. I asked if the Police would consider a scheme like the Watford Business Against Crime scheme, where businesses get walkie talkies linked to police, access to Council CCTV and regular crime bulletins. I know the scheme co-ordinator and offered an introduction. The Borough commander asked me to "Give Lisa my number". My wife sitting next to me, gave me a dirty look at this suggestion, for reasons I can't quite fathom.
Another member of the audience asked whether the Neighbourhood watch was still active. Lisa said yes and said she could give out details. Another resident asked whether it was better to leave lights on or off to deter burglars. The Commander stated "Lights on definitely". He then proceeded to give a list of actions to deter burglars and crime.
* Don't have a hedge, as this can give cover to burglars
* Lock windows and doors
* Don't leave keys where people can get them with fishing rods and magnets
* Don't use mobile phones in public places
* Get a light with a timer for the autumn
Cycling activist, Jon Klaff stated that he was on a Borough crime panel and asked the Police to explain what such panels did. They co-ordinate between the Police nad local community and help the Police set priorities. Jon is a facts and figures man and seemed a bit disappointed generally that the audience seemed to be driven largely by emotionally charged anger at what has been going on. He had hoped for better suggestions and a better prepared response.
The final question was from Harsha, who is a friend of the Patel family. She wanted to thank Mr Offord and the local councillors for their kindness and help in difficult times.
And that was that.
I then spoke to some residents and adjourned to the Mill Hill Services Club, with a gaggle of residents for a pint and to chew the cud. I felt that it was important to give as accurate a description of the night as possible. I must declare that as a prospective Lib Dem Council candidate in May, I have an interest in this, however as a blogger, I want to be as honest and fair as possible. So this is as much an unbiased report as I can manage. Part 2 is my personal view of the evening.