Monday, 17 September 2012

Friern Library Update - meeting with Barnet Council

At 10am a group of local residents, members of various local campaigns and four officials from Barnet Council met at Friern Library for the second in a series of meetings to try and discuss a way forward for the library and also for Friary Park house.

The council was represented by Bill Murphy, Julie Taylor, Heather Wills and Mike Faye.

There was some interesting new information. It appears that the Carnegie Foundation, the original library backers may be interested in providing some new funding towards retaining the library. The scope of this offer is at present unknown.

The council officials reiterated that the council simply cannot get by without the half million pounds they expect to receive from the sale. For many local people this is a rather contentious point.

Local activist JD informed us that there was no transparency in the council figures. He asked the council to clarify the statement that other libraries needed work to become DDA compliant. Bill Murphy confirmed this. Other campaigners wondered why a compliant library was being closed and sold.

Local campaigner Mike Gee interjected to make a direct point. This lasted 25 minutes and involved a detailed analysis of the council accounts. Mike Faye admitted that such items as heating bills were not always properly apportioned. Bill Murphy expressed a desire to raise more money from renting library space for meetings. Pete Phoenix (one of the occupiers) suggested that he could organise work at Avenue House to facilitate this.

Continuing his "direct point", Mike Gee pointed out that the library allegedly had five full time staff, for the 33 hours a week it was opened. He stated that no one had ever seen five full time staff in the library.  He then stated that the accounts show that the non staff running costs for the library are £3,458.40 which is mostly the gas bill (the gas heating was left on after the building was closed).

Bill Murphy pointed out that the CEO's salary was in some way included in the bill as a hidden item (no wonder they are closing it). Everyone was rather mystified by this interjection. When he thought about what he'd said, so was Mr Murphy.

The Barnet Eye raised the forthcoming eviction process (The first round of this nasty game of council vs Friern Barnet is in court on Tuesday 18th at 10am - @Barnet County Court, St Mary's Court, Regents Pk Rd, N3 1BQ (very near Finchley Central station) please come along to show your support). The Barnet Eye suggested a suspension of this whilst negotiations progressed as a sign of good faith. As the security surveillance on an occupied building is costing £600 a day, it would seem sensible to reach an accomodation with the occupiers to look after the building until a proper use is found. The Council officers agreed to take this suggestion back to the council.

The Barnet Eye also explained that he felt that the term "investing" in libraries was misused and a proper strategy should be found to introduce real long term savings such as solar panels and out of hours usage. The Barnet Eye also suggested the meeting offered a form of engagement which the various consultations had failed to achieve.

The council officers stated that Councillor Rams could not attend as it was Rosh Hashana. Mr Oliver Natleson stated he was also Jewish but considered the library to be more important than attending a religious service.

The issue of footfall at the Arts Depot library was discussed. Apparently four people a day use this. The reopened Friern Library is seeing between 40-70 people a day.

The council summed up that they were disappointed that the Friary park offer had not been properly debated. Another meeting was scheduled for next week.

Barnet Eye commentary.

Barnet Council recently changed the rules for local area forum meetings. As a result no proper debate happens. By accident, the occupation has forced all sides to engage in proper dialog under rules acceptable to all.

I would suggest that all Barnet cabinet members attend the next meeting in observer caapcity, to see real community discussions in place. Not everyone present agreed with every aspect of what happened. My blogging colleague Mr Reasonable certainly had his reservations. What is clear is that we all found it more democratic and accessible than the charade that is the residents forum meetings.

If I was Councillor Robert Rams, I would bow to the inevitable and reopen the library. It could be dressed up as a huge victory and it would lance a very unsightly boil on the bottom of the administration. Huge budget savings could be achieved and a much loved facility preserved.

Rams could claim that it showed the council listened to the community and could work with it to deliver positive outcomes in a time of budget pressures.  In a civilised society, no one gets everything they want. A reopened Friern Library with a proper librarian funded by the council, but also staffed by volunteers, generating money from being a community hub and from renting some meeting space at Friary Park (I would like to see a dedicated centre for NEET youngsters here) would represent a victory for all.

A new form of social engagement could be developed that would be a genuine model for other councils, engaging all members of the community would be a real and lasting legacy for Richard Cornelius. Let's hope he has the vision to grab it.

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