Thursday, December 25, 2014

All Souls to Austerity, or 'Gilded Age' for Some?

IT might be Christmassy, if it had some decorations. But if it looks cold in this picture, now its worse -the lights are off,  and the building's up for sale.

NO, this isn't the Pottins family mansion in seasonably wintry guise, but it is a place where I frequently went back in the 1960s, and not just to get out of the cold, when I was living in Kensal Rise. Providing an escape from boring drudgery at work and the walls of my bedsit, and free at that, the Kensal Rise library with its books and newspapers (casettes and computers hadn't yet arrived)   offered truths and tales a plenty. I don't think it occurred to me that it had a tale of its own -and more to come.

The street names - College Road, and All Souls Avenue -were a clue.  In those days you could walk from West Kilburn almost to Harlesden, pass three public libraries, and not see a pub. When you crossed the Harrow Road there was one on the corner of Scrubs Lane, the College Park. The reason for the 'dry' zone in between, so I was told, was that much of the land was owned by All Souls College, Oxford, who cared about the residents' moral welfare and sobriety.

If this was old-fashioned paternalism, it had its good side. All Souls had gifted the land for the library on College Road.  When it opened in 1900 it had a distinguished guest, Mark Twain, who happened to be staying at Dollis Hill at the time. There was a brass plaque commemorating his visit.

 When local people heard four years ago that their library was one of five which Brent council wanted to close, they thought that its distinguished past might be evoked to save it. Particularly as  the site had been given under a covenant specifying that the building be used as a public reading room and library. Residents in Cricklewood thought they had a similar case for their library too.

The campaign to save Kensal Rise Library did not stop there. Campaigners lobbied the council and took a coach up to Oxford to protest at All Souls College, with some support from students. They held local meetings and cultural events, and gained national publicity. Besides local teachers and trades unionists, they gained support from Alan Bennett,[9] Zadie Smith,[10] Nick Cave[11] and the Pet Shop Boys.[2]

After the council had taken away the books and closed the building, the campaigners set up a makeshift Pop Up library on the corner, with donated books and volunteers. It withstood the weather only to be torn down by heavies sent down by All Souls, no longer so interested in maintaining cultural standards as engaging in property development. 

Along the way, the Kensal Rise campaign has seen some interesting developments. One, a property developer's application for planning permission for the library site brought heaps of e-mails of support.  Only thing is they were mostly fakes. Some came from non-existent IP addresses, others from the same business premises, or purported to be from people who had not sent them. The council had to investigate. It also decided to notify the police. Meanwhile the campaigners persuaded All Souls and the council that any development of the building for flats must leave space for community use as a library. How much, and whether it would be sufficient for both lending and reading room is not so clear.

But two things have been made clear, just before Christmas. 
"The Kensal Rise Library building is up for auction this month, with a guide price of £1.15m.
Although planning permission has been granted to convert the majority of space in the building into flats, it still has a dedicated space on the ground floor earmarked for community use, which the Friends of Kensal Rise Library hope to run as a community library.
The community space is still controlled by the original owners of the building, All Souls College, Oxford, which sold the building to a developer on the basis that: "a certain amount of space in each building is leased on a rent-free basis for 999 years to enable continued provision of library services to the residents."

So the main use of the building will be for profitable development by anyone who can find £1.15 million or more, while the council's obligation to provide a proper library, run by professional staff, for residents and their children, is being replaced by a promise of space for unpaid volunteers and whatever books they can acquire. Call it Cameron's 'Big Society', brought in by Brent Labour council's cuts.

As for the law and order aspect, in February it was reported that police were delaying their investigation to seek more evidence.

 And now, just in time for the Christmas break came the news:   ' Brent Council has been informed that the Crown Prosecution Service is to take no action regarding the fraudulent emails sent in support of Andrew Gillick's original planning application for Kensal Rise Library.
Arnold Meagher, Brent Council's Principal Lawyer, Housing and Litigation Team wrote:

    I write to advise that the Council has been informed of the outcome of the investigation regarding Mr Gillick and the decision of the Crown Prosecution Service.

    The Crown Prosecution Service has decided that there is insufficient evidence to support any prosecution against Mr Gillick and therefore, no further action will be taken against him. "

    70 or so fraudulent emails had been sent including one using the name and address of local business woman Kirsty Slattery.  Reacting to the news this afternoon she said:

    I think the whole process has been purposely drawn out and detrimental to the people and businesses it affected. So somehow no one is responsible for these acts of fraud (?) according to the CPS and at no point has anyone even received an apology from Brent Council.

    The fraud affected my business as it misrepresented my standing in the community. This should never have been allowed to happen, someone ought to have been held accountable for these deceitful actions and the very least I would expect is a sincere apology."

Kensal Rise Councillor Dan Filson was even more scathing:

This news seems released by the CPS deliberately at a time when attention is elsewhere. Shame on the CPS.

    I am appalled that an attempt - by whoever, though the email thread heading may offer a clue - to pervert the planning process had not resulted in a prosecution.     It would be useful to know if the reason for this decision is insufficient evidence linking the alleged perpetrator to the offence(s) or an unclear charge upon which a prosecution could be hung?

    A dangerous precedent has been set, that a fraudulent attempt to mislead a planning authority as to the level of support for a planning application from the community and as to who in that community is supporting it by way of impersonation. We don't now know whether this stunt has been pulled in respect of other applications in this or other boroughs.

    Labour leader of the council Muhammed Butt said:

   " It is bitterly disappointing that the police have chosen to ignore the evidence found in the council’s own inquiries and drop their investigation. When the future of the building affects hundreds of Brent residents and the entire Kensal Rise community, any issue of alleged fraud must surely be a priority in order to maintain the trust of local people. "

We might contrast this episode with the alacrity with which the Metropolitan Police moved on Christmas Eve to evict squatters from a former RBS building in Westminster, where they had invited homeless people to join them, and planned to serve Christmas Dinner.

They might not like being called "plebs", but its we real plebs who should feel insulted by being compared to the Metropolitan Police. In any conflict between property interests and the interests of working people,  the police and the Crown Prosecution Service know what side they are on, and it isn't ours. And unfortunately I don't see any reduction in police numbers changing that bias, nor is it likely to improve if 'proper coppers' are replaced by enthusiastic volunteers.

It is a pity we have not a writer like Mark Twain to follow up some of these stories. His young hero Tom Sawyer could have figured in another of Brent's library campaigns, Preston Park, among the youngsters writing on its short-lived "democracy wall".  Huckleberry Finn might have been trying to serve up Xmas dinner in that empty bank, instead of helping runaway slave Jim along the river bank. But best of all, Twain's less well-known work 'The Gilded Age', which summed up a society of profiteering, property speculation, exploitation and corruption, might be updated from booming late 19th century America to today's different times. An age of austerity, true, but still a Gilded Age for some.  

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