I was asked by a journalist on the way in what I thought would happen. The people of Brent will make their case, they will win every argument, they will contain their anger and seek a reversal of this reckless plan for the sake of some of the most vulnerable and deprived members of our community. Sadly, they will then be ignored. Unfortunately I was right on nearly every count. They did not all contain their anger. Everybody left feeling betrayed.
Leader Ann John facilitated the speaking rights of no less than sixteen (fact check) petitioners, all of whom were against the plans. We heard young, we heard old - invariably eloquent and impassioned - we heard from locals affected by plans to axe Kensal Rise, Neasden and Preston libraries, to name but three. A small number of councillors added their voices, but these rung hollow to most of those in the public gallery, perhaps with the notable exception of Cllr Harshadbhai Patel (Preston Conservative) – who sounded like he wasn’t just trying to cover his rear at the next election.
Public addresses went on for over two hours, with almost half an hour given over to a presentation of a “Libraries Transformation Project” – read Libraries Decimation Smokescreen – by Cllr James Powney, who was subjected to sustained heckling. Unfortunately, no right of reply was given to this presentation, which contained many bad assumptions and falacious arguments likely to stir even the most dispassionate observer. For example, we were asked to refer to maps in which population densities for young and old were given across the borough. These diagrams were used as a pretext to prioritise some libraries for closure ahead of others, on the assumption that less of the target groups would be adversely affected. But, by parity of reasoning, why not just provide us with a map of population density per se, and target lower density neighbourhoods – since that would be the combined effect?
Powney instead tried to cast himself as a champion of equalities! You starve communities of their local libraries, deprive some of the most vulnerable yet determined in our society from gaining access to a front line service – and you are really helping them in the end? Go figure. This kind of double speak was matched only by the timidity of other Executive members. Cllr Muhammed Butt asked a question about petitioners’ concerns about consultation and legality. We were then treated to stage-managed answers from officers which gave him the required result so he could vote with a clear conscience.
There are several candidates for what makes for the biggest sham of our Council. Is it that the "consultation document" was not a consultation document? – comparisons with the Camden consultation document entirely to the point. Is it that the 83% who opposed the closures, even on the document’s own terms, were ignored? Is it that Brent is building a £100m behemoth that nobody wants or can afford, and has the gall to pretend that this is a way of saving money and avoiding redundancies? As my FOI request showed, Brent’s own feasibility study proved that the project would cost more than the status quo for at least 25 years (see appendix here).
OR is it that the ten members of the Executive could not even bring themselves to raise their arms when it came to the actual decision-making? In fact it was so easy to miss the decision that clarification was sought from the Chair, who confirmed “unanimous”. What this moment betrays is the inability of the Exec to even stand up and be counted when it is their job to be counted, if nothing else. Not even this could be got right.
Petitioners came and went and were not even dignified with the material sign that their Exec members were going to ignore their pleas and appeals. No, this was diminished responsibility of a high order, an act of commission masquerading as an act of omission, as if their hands had been tied by unelected bureaucrats peddling legalese and experiments in social science. Powney at least had the chutzpah to speak what he believed.
Nay, the biggest sham is the absence of local democracy itself. For the people of Brent not only to be ignored but to be told that they have been listened to first.
Local and regional news reports: Council Cut Libraries (ITV London Tonight, 11 Apr 2011), Half of Brent’s Libraries to Close as Residents Protest (Brent Times, 12 Apr 2011), Libraries are Essential (Wembley Observer, 26 Nov 2010).