Another 'One Barnet' rejection of Friern Barnet Library

It was a long agenda at this week’s Business Management Overview & Scrutiny Committee (BMOSC) meeting.

Issues up for discussion included the future of the Hendon Football Club site, a Cabinet decision that the scrutiny committee agreed should be referred back to Cabinet for re-consideration.

Also on the agenda were other Cabinet decisions that were called-in for scrutiny including parking charges, the council’s ‘Events in parks’ policy, and older people’s day centre cuts.

Then came Rosie Canning’s petition to reopen Friern Barnet library.

Rosie presented her case calmly and persuasively. The closure decision was taken prematurely. The interim library at artsdepot was an inefficient failure.

Along with other people in the public gallery I had submitted two questions for the Public Questions slot. All of them were ruled inappropriate for the meeting, on the rather curious grounds that they referred to a matter upon which a decision had been taken during the last six months. Never mind that the decision (to close Friern Barnet library) was palpably flawed, as made upon false information, but let that pass. One would have thought that questions querying the validity of Cabinet decisions were very much what a Scrutiny Committee would wish to hear.

The validity of excluding the questions was questioned at the meeting with good reason by Cllr Pauline Coakley Webb. She made the unanswerable point that reopening the library, the object of the petition, was clearly a different matter from the cited decision, which was to close it. One-nil to her, but of course it was too late to resurrect the questions and obtain written answers by 9pm in the evening. CllrHugh Rayner, the Chair, informed us all that written replies would be communicated to the questioners. Sure enough, I received a reply to my two today. As ever, the answers were evasive and failed to come close to answering the questions. There must be a textbook at the Town Hall in ‘How to give Evasive Answers’.  For the record:

Q1       Can you confirm that the interim library at Tally Ho will be closed and replaced by the reopened Friern Barnet library, and give the date when this will happen?

Ball park estimates of the cost per loan of books from the interim library amount to about £40 per book loan, which is clearly a wasteful use of resources and money. Rent of the room at artsdepot is about £30,000 pa, staffing and other costs say £20,000, thus a total of £50,000 pa = about £1,000 per week.

Observation of books borrowed puts it at a maximum of 25 per week, hence the calculation of £40 per loan.

One would presume that sound management would demand a swift end to such unnecessary extravagance, and a very welcome return of the comprehensive and cost effective service offered at Friern Barnet.

Response  to Q1           The libraries strategy is clear that Friern Barnet has been closed to deliver savings and to enable the merger of services into a new landmark library at artsdepot. The Tally Ho Corner library is an interim facility provided in response to demand.

Projecting current performance across the rest of the year, the current cost per issue is £6.03, compared to £2.68 in 2011/12 at Friern Barnet library. The total running costs of the library are £32,400 per annum.

Q2      Please would you make available for the Scrutiny Committee to read before their deliberations on 31 July, and published for the general public also, the feasibility study for the Landmark Library at artsdepot, so long delayed since July 2011 but promised belatedly by the end of June 2012, together with the brief given to the architect?

Response to Q2            We are happy to respond to requests for information in line with the Council’s governance framework.

Of course my two supplementary questions never got an airing but, for the benefit of councillors reading this, here they are:

1                     It would seem that the decision to put an interim Library into the artsdepot was a costly failure. Does the Cabinet ever consider the criterion of cost effectiveness before making decisions involving long term contracts.

2                     In 1999 Barnet’s Borough Architect, Vaughan Abbot, visited Chaville, one of Barnet’s twin towns, to study their arts centre.  This was in the days when consultation processes were taken seriously by the council.  Does the Cabinet agree that, with hindsight, there are many current examples of the benefits to residents to be had from having on the Town Hall staff a professionally qualified borough architect?

Next it was Cllr Kate Salinger who tore into her Tory colleagues and their stupid decisions. She described her former visits with her children to Friern Barnet library after school and contrasted it with a bus trip in the current century with children from Friern Barnet to Tally Ho. The interim library is a paltry sop, and not a patch on what is offered by North Finchley Library round the corner. It is a complete waste of money.

Cllr Barry Rawlings was impassioned.

            “For God’s sake, to close the library during the run-up to school exams…!”

Cabinet Member, Cllr Robert Rams, rather than facing this onslaught chose to put in to bat Bill Murphy, the Assistant Director of Libraries. Unfortunately Bill was as out of his depth as Robert.

            “I have to make savings…We need the capital receipt from sale of the libraries…”

Council finance, he explained to us, is complicated. Too much so for him. His simple mantra is based on the faulty premise that there are no other ways to skin a cat. The budget exercise, as he should know, is about whether or not to increase council tax, whether to use reserves, lots more.

Cllr Brian Salinger asked, as he had at the Scrutiny Committee which had recommended that the library remain open (and been met by prevarication and non-information), when was it planned for the Landmark Library to open, and where would it be in the building?

Cllr Rams’ famous hope that “the gap” between closing Friern Barnet Library and opening one at artsdepot would be weeks rather than months, was revised to “2013 or 2014.”

Where would it be? What the scrutinisers required was an honest answer. Would it be in the two-floor gym, vacant and unoccupied for eight years? Not Robert Rams’ vague “Oh, it could be anywhere.” This would have been an appropriate moment to tell us what the feasibility study recommends.

The prevarication and misinformation was too much for Mike Geein the public seats, and he was goaded to interrupt the flow of nonsense. Cllr Hugh Rayner, in the Chair, let down by Murphy and Rams, gave Mike an ultimatum to be silent or be ejected. Mike himself felt insulted and deserving an apology, so Hugh adjourned the meeting for a cooling off. A modicum of honest debate and accurate information from Murphy and Rams would have avoided the outburst.

The irony of this is that Mike, who is Environment and Transport representative on the Finchley Society committee, is one of those experienced local residents whose advice the Cabinet so signally lacks, and who should be invited to advise Council committees. Until they begin to heed sound advice they will continue to blunder on to the detriment of the health of the borough.

BMOSC agreed to refer the petition and the issue of reopening Friern Barnet Library back to Cabinet via the Cabinet Member, Robert Rams. Right after the BMOSC meeting, Robert Rams made the following comment to a local reporter:

"Having considered the petition, and in light of the decision of full council over the budget, I have to say I'm afraid there is no possibility that we can afford to reopen this library building."

Keith Martin


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