Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A rare win , win situation !

Some issues in local government just go on and on and whatever effort successive Councillors and Council Officers put into resolving them there is often no end in sight.

So it is a pleasant change to report the ending of one long running saga in Barnet affairs , the Stanley Road Playing fields issue which has been occupying the minds of Barnet's finest for about the last 10 years . This site is bang in the middle of East Finchley near the Grange Estate and adjacent to the Northern Line .

Next week the Cabinet Resources Committee will be asked to agree the disposal of the Stanley Road Playing fields and the site of the former Herbert Wilmot Youth Centre to the Department for Education for the construction of facilities for the new "free school" , the Archer Academy due to open in September .

This non denominational school created very much by parent power and lobbied hard for by Mike Freer in a clear justification of Michael Gove's policy , in East Finchey has already acquired the Hampstead Garden Suburb Institute Building round the back of East Finchley tube station and will fill a huge need for secondary school places for East Finchley children . The other Secondary School in the area , the Roman Catholic Voluntary Aided Bishop Douglas has long been recognised by local parents as a disaster area in Education and it is a complete and abject failure of the Catholic Arch Dioceses of Westminster that this long running disgrace has not been sorted . Repeated attempts by the Borough over the years have been rebuffed by the Arch Diocese and the only solution now for Bishop Douglas is closure or a relaunched Academy ( a la Wren Academy in North Finchley ) .

Over the years I did not win many friends in the Conservative Cabinet by constantly objecting to the sale for a housing estate of the playing fields , first we had to see off a Cllr  Brian Salinger scheme and then a Cllr Dan Thomas scheme . Back in 2005 Cllr Salinger won himself few friends by sending in the bulldozers one weekend to knock down the former Herbert Wilmott centre on the pretext of Asbestos issues, hoping for a quick sale of the site and Cllr Thomas , I suspect badly advised by his Officers saw only the pound signs of a Capital receipt .

What East Finchley does not need is more social housing . As a Ward it has more than its' fair share. What the area is desperately short of is green space , sports facilities and Community assets.

The Archer Academy proposals will provide a sports centre , an all weather pitch , and ancillary community facilities available outside school hours and protected by a proposed deed of dedication with the local organisation Sport EF . The local Community have worked hard to try and acquire the site themselves but were always doomed to failure as many organisations gave them warm words of comfort but no hard cash and their plans were unfortunately over ambitious and there seemed a reluctance to compromise .

East Finchley as an area is changing dramatically . Young middle class families unable to afford Muswell Hill and needing to be in easy reach of the tube are moving arriving in  large numbers . Now the facilities they demand  are following, with the creation of a decent Secondary School to which they can send there children . All they need now is a Waitrose ( and they could have had that , together with a new Library if Councillor Brian Salinger had not derailed the disposal of Park House near the station back in 2002) .

The Stanley Road proposals are a win for parents wanting secondary places for their children ; for the Community who want sports facilities ; for those opposed to yet more dense social housing and for the Council where the £3 million odd ( according to my source at the Dfe) capital receipt will compensate for the delayed receipt for the eventual sale of the Friern Barnet Library site .

I am rather proud of my small  role in this saga and look forward to the new Academy being a huge success .

No doubt one or two whingers will emerge and the Hendon Times will adopt its' usual sour attitude to good news but to quote a Finchley icon "Rejoice at the news  " !!!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Underhill Soap Opera drawing to a close ?

News that the Football League have given Barnet Football Club permission to play their League matches next season at The Hive facility at Edgware in the London Borough of Harrow seem to herald the end of the longest running Political saga in Barnet Politics , the future of the Underhill football ground.

I will not bore readers with all the background but since 2001 when a Government Planning Inspector refused permission for Barnet Football Club to redevelop Copthall, what happens at Underhill has occupied the minds of Barnet Council Officers , Councillors , successive MPs and hundreds of local residents .

The support of the Labour Party for a planning application on green belt land at Underhill for a new stadium actually cost the then Labour / Liberal Party coalition control of Barnet Council in 2002 as local residents took the Conservative Party at their word when it was made clear a Conservative Administration would not allow a 10,000 stadium on Green Belt land. Anyone who has knocked on doors in roads around the football ground will know residents are eternally grateful that successive Conservative Council Leaders have kept their word.

The decision by Barnet Football Club to move seems the only sensible solution as the Chairman of the Club must have realised that no Politician of whatever Party would support a substantial redevelopment of Underhill . The Labour Party who in the early years of the decade appeared supportive of the clubs planning proposals has in recent years distanced itself from its' earlier position .Successive Council Leaders,  have endured endless meetings with the Barnet Football Club Chairman and his acolytes but on many occasions just as deals appeared close the goalposts would move , sometimes literally !

Alan Williams , the late Victor Lyon , Brian Salinger , Mike Freer , the late Lynne Hillan are among those who had the scares on their backs having dealt with the Football Club issue.

Negotiations were never helped by the habit of the late Dennis Signey OBE ,former Editor of the Hendon Times and a distinguished sports journalist and media adviser and director of Barnet Football Club leaving confidential meetings at the Town Hall and immediately ringing local journalists with a complete briefing , I suppose once a journalist always a journalist.

The sale of the freehold of the club ground by the Labour / Liberal Administration during the 2002 local election campaign purdah period ( a timeslot when no important decisions are suppossed to be taken  ) left a huge suspicion in the air over the behaviour of the outgoing Labour Administration and lead to endless Enquiries that cost the taxpayer thousands and never really proved anything except possible Council incompetence .

For someone who has little interest in Football , although I did attend Barnet v Port Vale at Underhill a couple of years ago , and once slept  with an Arsenal striker , I am not fussed if Barnet survive in the Football League or bothered where they play . However I did have some sympathy with the Chairman of the Club when he thought Barnet Council were applying double standards over Copthall by granting Saracens Rugby Club a lease and planning permission.

Saracens undertook a smooth PR and lobbying operation with Councillors and threw money at the local Community . They received a far friendlier reception from many Councillors because Rugby Union is followed on the whole by middle class Tory voting Barnet residents . Indeed the average age of a Saracens' attendee is apparently 59, hardly the age group known for rowdy behaviour. The lobbying worked as Councillors , with one or two  noble exceptions forgot about their scruples and principals about green belt development and duly voted it through .Although I think few realised they were going to get a stadium named after a German Insurance company with a rather dodgy history under Nazi Germany including one former Director General serving as Hitler's Economics Minister  . Mill Hill residents have already begun to complain to their local Councillors about the huge Controlled Parking Zone with yellow lines stretching across a vast area of Mill Hill.

Guarantees made to the Hendon MP by the Mayor of London were simply ignored . Not much unites Andrew Dismore, Matthew Offord  and I, but opposition to this  redevelopment of Copthall did.

The key factor that ensured Barnet Council eventually saw off Barnet Football Club was that successive Council Leaders and ordinary Councillors stood firm in the face of sometimes appalling intimidation . Who can forget the Coffin paraded through the streets of Chipping Barnet during the 2006 Council elections of the leaflets handed out by Football Club supporters at tube stations advising people not to vote for specific candidates on the basis of their perceived support or otherwise for the football club or the dreadful behaviour of gatecrashers at the 2006 Mayor making and buffet.

Saracens are being a little more subtle.

Last week the Club sent me an invitation to attend their match against London Welsh in March . I declined . I may be a lot of things but a hypocrite I am not . I assume that  no Councillor who has accepted such hospitality is able to vote on future planning and licensing hearings involving the Club. The "sponsoring " of all the Town Centre signs across the Borough gives the impression that somehow Saracens has the Borough "bought and paid for" . The constant positive coverage in the Hendon Times is of course unrelated to the money spent advertising in this increasingly desperate  publication . No doubt the details of the " deal" being given by Saracens as they host the Mayor's Charity dinner at the end of his year will appear in the register of members' interests in due course and is unrelated to the fact the Mayor as a Mill Hill Councillor seems to have failed listen to many Mill Hill residents who objected to the planning application .

However suddenly Barnet Political Leadership has woken up and told Saracens " enough is enough"
The Leader of the Council , Councillor Richard Cornelius told the last Conservative Group meeting that Saracens had been told in no uncertain terms that any further planning application to add 5,000 more seats ( on top of the current 10,000 ) to satisfy European Club competition rules would be given short shrift.  So how much longer before Saracens follow the Barnet Football Club route and claim the Council are uncooperative on attempts to extend their stadium and will have to consider moving elsewhere ........................

I suspect the Council has not heard the last from Saracens nor from Barnet Football Club . The Chairman has a ground to sell and quite for what development the green belt Underhill site will be sold for may ensure the Underhill soap opera still has some distance to run !

Thursday, February 07, 2013

scratch the surface and see what you find

A few weeks ago the United Kingdom marked Holocaust Memorial Day . Since the introduction of this commemoration in 2001 ( due in part to the efforts of Andrew Dismore)  Barnet Council has been prominent in ensuring a suitable civic event is held. We have progressed from a cold tent in Hendon Park to the more comfortable surroundings of Middlesex University and have ensured schools participation not least in the campaign supporting the planting of snowdrops in remembrance of the children murdered during the Shoah.

The Barnet Civic event this year took place despite thick snow on the ground and attracted a reasonable attendance including all three of the Borough's Members of Parliament, the GLA Member , the Borough Police Commander and a sizeable phalanx of Councillors . The responsibility for arranging the event lies with the Cabinet Member for Community Safety and Community Engagement ( a title dreamt up by Mike Freer when Leader of the Council to keep me busy ) and now held by Councillor Longstaff who duly introduced ( very briefly ) the event . However as Councillor Longstaff spoke I could not help thinking of a video that I had watched on You tube a few days before of that same Councillor's appearance at a recent meeting of the Eastern Area Planning Committee when the subject of an "Eruv" to cover the Chipping Barnet area was on the agenda .

Applications for Eruvs have always caused a flutter of controversy ever since Barnet Council dealt with the first one covering parts of Finchley/ Golders Green/Hampstead Garden Suburb  20 years ago. However a long and through Public Enquiry at the time  decided there were no planning grounds to reject applications for Eruvs and as Council Planning Committees can only by law consider planning matters all subsequent applications have been allowed .

However this did not stop Councillor Longstaff appearing before the Committee to argue against the Barnet Eruv not least by suggesting it would encourage Jews to move into the area !!!!!

The man in charge of Holocaust commemoration in Barnet is worried about Jews moving into the Area ??????

The fact that existing  Erus have made no difference to house prices , population mix or anything else but have made the life of some observant Jews with young children or elderly relatives easier seems to have escaped him . Thousands of Barnet residents pass through Eruvs everyday of their lives and have no idea they are doing so . Councillor Longstaff's objection that residents did not want to see religious symbols outside their windows was dismissed by Councillor Joanna Tambourides who asked him if this meant he objected to public Christmas Trees ?

However Councillor Longstaff is not alone in attitude to the Jewish Community . The Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Bradford East David Ward managed to cause uproar with his comments about Holocaust Memorial Day and "The Jews" inflicting "atrocities " on the Palestinians. At least he apologised unlike the long term insulter of Israel Baroness Tonge who quite rightly lost the Lib Dem Whip over one of her ignorant outbursts . The cartoon by Gerald Scarfe in "The Sunday Times" published on Holocaust Memorial Day was rightly condemned by Rupert Murdoch , a long time supporter of Israel and the Jewish Community .

Here in Barnet, despite or perhaps because of our substantial Jewish population there are still far to many examples  of nice middle class" respectable" people seeming  to think there is nothing wrong with making anti Semitic remarks and behaving as if they were members of Finchley Golf Club in the early 1960s . A local blogger who thinks there is nothing wrong with objecting to the Sternberg Centre Planning application on the grounds "these people are ruining Finchley "; Activists on picket lines outside meetings of the North London Waste Authority oozing with anti -semitism  as they attempt to intimidate Politicians deciding on the awarding of a waste contract objecting to a multinational doing business in Israel; or objectors to a Planning application for a Mill Hill Jewish School inventing reasons why it should not proceed when everyone knew what their real agenda was ! Oh and quite why has there been such a concerted campaign against the proposed redevelopment of the Fallowcourt Avenue Synagogue ?

I spoke at the Planning Committee that agreed the application for an Eruv for the Woodside Park/ North Finchley/ Totteridge Area and before I did so I read through the two lever arch files of objections that had been received . After 20 minutes or so I could take no more. Whilst some residents had restricted themselves to objecting on what they considered planning grounds there was letter after e mail ( one of 28 pages !) containing vile anti - Semitic abuse some of which would have made Oswald Mosley blush . It made me feel physically ill .

And before the usual suspects claim anti Zionism  is not the same as being anti Semitic , that may be the case at Islington Dinner Parties but not in my book .

I look forward to the day when those who fail to understand or apperciate the Jewish Community restrict their comments to the Golf Club Bar