Saturday, February 01, 2014

A Shameful Day's Work for All Souls College - and for Brent's Labour council

 PUBLIC ENTERPRISE wrecked by drive for private profit

WHAT sort of vandals tear down library shelving and dump the books out on the pavement in the rain? Security men hired by a property firm did this in Kensal Rise, west London, on Friday morning, demolishing the pop-up library which local residents had set up, and dumping the books, while putting up metal fencing around the closed library building which the owners want to "develop" for other use.
By the afternoon supporters of the Friends of Kensal Rise Library campaign had done what they could to save their book collection under tarpaulins, and were gathering for a protest rally against the library closure and the raid on their volunteer effort.

Recriminations were echoing back and forth between the property developers, the owners - who happen to be the prestigious All Souls College, Oxford (registered as a charity for the furtherance of knowledge) and Brent's Labour council (elected to serve the community and raise education, as part of the public's wellbeing). It was the council's decision to close six local libraries in Brent, Kensal Rise being one of them, which brought on local resistance, efforts to keep the library, and the setting up of the "pop up" library as a stop-gap measure maintaining a service and showing they were in earnest.  Campaigners have been pressing for a community library space in the proposed new development of the site by developer Andrew Gillick.
Brent council claimed its library closures were not just cuts but part of  a 'library transformation' project, pointing to the opening of a new library as part of the expensive civic centre built in Wembley. Meanwhile people in Kensal Rise were advised to use the library in Willesden Green, a bus ride away, though this was hardly a satisfactory alternative for young chidren, or the elderly. It then turned out that Willesden Green library was also being closed for redevelopment.

The Kensal Rise campaigners attracted wide attention, holding literary events at the library with well-known writers, such as J.K.Eowlings and Alan Bennett, for both adults and children, before the building was closed. Some Labour councillors, as well members of the local party, opposed the council and sided with the library campaign.

Among those who contributed to the pop up library, posthumously, was my late friend Kyran Connolly. A former president of the National Union of Journalists(NUJ) and writer for encyclopedias, Kyran lived in Kensal Rise, and supported the library campaign, so relatives and friends thought it appropriate that some of his impressive book collection be donated to the library. I can imagine Kyran's explosive rage if he caught the property men dumping his books on the pavement!

It was a predecessor of his, Sir Hugh Gilzeal Reid, the first president of the NUJ, who had an important part over a century ago in starting Kensal Rise library. Sir Hugh, the son of a Scottish shoe-maker, was a self-educated man, who had to start work on a farm at the age of 8, before starting his rise to eminence. It was in 1900, that he invited a successful American writer, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, to come and stay at his house in Dollis Hill.

Hearing that Twain was staying locally, and knowing perhaps that he too, having started work young, had educated himself  in public libraries, Kensal Rise Library Committee thought he would be just the fellow to come and open their Public Reading Room, which was built on land given to Willesden Council by All Souls College Oxford under a restricted covenant that said it could only be used as a site for a free public reading room and library. Beside the brass plaque commemorating his visit, the library proudly held a photograph of Twain with local dignitaries.

Twain had expressed the hope that reading room would grow into a full library, and in 1904, Andrew Carnegie donated £3,000 so it could do just that. In more recent times the pleasant Victorian redbrick building was tastefully modernised inside, and it had become a favourite place for local children, for story groups, a relaxing place to read, or a quiet place to study and use computers.

In 1988 an earlier attempt to close Kensal Rise library was resisted by local people who occupied it overnight to prevent closure. They also won support from All Souls College and promises of free legal representation. The council backed off, realising the strength of opposition.

In May 2012 the council adopted a tougher line, staging a raid to empty the library of its contents, and also taking the Mark Twain plaque away. Meanwhile however the library campaigners won suppot from the Mark Twain institute in the United States, and had hoped that All Souls College too would honour its tradition by supporting the building's continued use for the community. 
This time it is different. Property developer Andrew Gillick appears to have the go ahead even though a previous planning application was dogged by reports of fraudulent e-mails submitted in support. Some of these appeared to come from other libraries, and people who could not be traced, others from an address the developer allegedly owned. Some people who were traced said their names and addresses had been used without permission and they actually opposed the development.An investigation has not yet been completed.

But in reply to questions from Brent Labour Party member Michael Calderbank, who is also a member of the left-wing Labour Representation Committee, Brent Council leader Mohammad Butt says police are not pursuing further investigation. 

Fake e-mails support developers

The latest news is that, while local councillors were expressing real or crocodile tears or sympathy for the angry Kensal Rise residents,  All Souls College, Oxford, which handed the management of the now defunct library Gillick, is blaming Brent council for the destruction of the beloved makeshift library.
In a letter seen by the Times, a planning enforcement officer threatened action after stating the build of the pop up library was in breach of planning control.
“I am of the opinion that this is unacceptable and it is my intention that enforcement action should be taken to remedy this breach of planning control,” the letter read.
A spokesperson for the college said: “The council asked us to do this a long time ago but we didn’t in the interest of the community.
“We waited till the last possible moment until we were legally obligated to vacate the property.”

 Owners blame council

All in all, a sad undignified spectacle for both the hallowed Oxford college and the once supposedly left-wing Brent Labour council, even if the latter seems to leave it to paid officers to lay down the line.  Versus a brave, ongoing struggle by "ordinary" members of the community determined to defend services and cultural amenities against the property profiteers. This is the reality, not David Cameron's increasingly forgotten myth of the "Big Society".

VICTORIAN VALUES?  Mark Twain at opening ceremony for Kensal Rise library, 1900.

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