Friern Barnet Library: Occupied and Liberated
After Barnet Council closed its local library in April. In September squatters brought the place back to life, creating a community-run service that has been hailed a success by locals, but prosecuted by the council. Stuart King dropped by and talked to Leon about the story behind the occupation.
Anticapitalist Initiative: Leon can you tell us the background to the occupation?
Leon: Twenty months ago Barnet Council announced their plans to shut the library along with a couple of others in the borough and almost immediately there was massive opposition to it. The Save Friern Barnet Library Group started up. Then in April of this year the Library was given 24 hours notice of shut down. So it happened really quickly. Within 24 hours there was a sit in for five hours. The security wouldn’t let anybody go to the back to use the toilet and nobody was experienced in sit-ins – they hadn’t come with supplies so they left after a few hours and the library then was shut for five months.
Around the beginning of September a group came in because they’d been reading about the library being shut. They were interested to see if they could start a project where they would occupy and live and the building with part of it used as a library. But because there’s really no space for living here the first thing they did was to contact a couple of people involved in previous Occupy projects and said “listen we’ve just got into this building, its really beautiful, and is really dear to locals hearts.” I’d been watching the campaign getting a lot of coverage in the Guardian, so I came straight away.
ACI: So how did you involve the community?
L: We had a meeting with Save Friern Barnet Library Group. They wanted to meet us because they were getting strange advice from their legal advisers, like if they came in they’d be liable for court costs. The two Labour Councillors in this ward have been really supportive here. They didn’t want to step over the line at the beginning but once they realised the legal advice was a bit of overkill a lot of people got involved.
So that happened around the 5th Sept. On the 7th we opened for the first day. The locals had been holding pop up libraries outside so they held it inside and the process began. We started meeting with the library campaign. With the occupiers there was four or five of us at the time. We had a real desire to not let our own agenda take over at all. Just to see if we could mobilise what was happening here as much as possible.
ACI: There was already a Borough wide campaign?
L: There was a Save the Library Campaign, and also a very strong local campaign, the Barnet Alliance for Public Services, against the councils One Barnet programme. This plans to privatise a huge amount of public services and a lot of those people came in.
Barnet Alliance have been helping here since the beginning and we’ve tried to develop a relationship. Some of them came down to when we were occupying at St Paul’s. I didn’t know any of them then but there’s been an actual affinity between the caretaker occupiers here and Barnet Alliance. We’re on the same page on a lot of issues.
Also a lot of new people came in from the near vicinity of this Library. At first they were a little bit wary of what the squatters in the library were going to be like. But when they met us and they saw what our intentions were we kicked it off quite quickly.
What we’ve been doing here has been really inspiring, seeing so many people come through the doors, to meet each other. Even people that have been campaigning in Barnet on different issues, we have been providing a space for people to come together, organise and share things.
ACI: So what has been the council’s response?
L: Within a week we had legal papers served from the council and they wanted us out. They didn’t like the idea at all. Even though the building was being left empty. It probably won’t be sold for another year at least if they get their way, but they wanted us out as soon as possible. The papers were delivered I think around 17 September. On 9 November, the Judge said this is a big trial, we need up to two days and gave us court dates 17-18 December. So that’s where we are legally now.
ACI: So people sleep here permanently. Is there always someone in the building and a system to alert people?
L: Yes we try to keep about four permanent people here. We have a text alert telephone tree. It’s not really a telephone tree, its just lots of numbers that we can send one text to all of them but we don’t have to worry about that here. We’re safe until after the court case.
ACI: You’ve got thousands of books here, where did they all come from?
L: All donated, we reckon it’s between 8-10,000. Most have been donated from the local area and we’ve had two groups outside of the area donate. We’ve had three computers donated as well, and financial donations that have enabled us to print off leaflets and flyers.
The way its worked is we set up working groups at the beginning so we sort of split off into outreach events, proposals and caretaking – just to make sure that the project wasn’t just controlled by the people who were sleeping in the building. It made sure that the people that wanted to get involved had power to make decisions over what happened at the library.
ACI: Is there an overarching committee or campaign? Do you see it as a problem running a “community Library” without paid staff or council finance?
L: Yes we have an assembly on Mondays where we discuss, we feedback from outreach events and the proposals group and we discuss where we are at the moment and what things we should be doing.
The Proposals Group works on a proposal to present to the council. There’s a community bid, and the other approach is that the council should reopen and fund it as well. As you say it has caused a little bit of controversy. The Council’s pulling money out of the library, do we want to be replacing that by volunteers? And in one sense the answer’s “No”, but I think people don’t have a problem with working to keep open a library, but they do have a problem with working to save a council that doesn’t care about services so its trying to find a balance.
ACI: It is a problem. In Lambeth for example they are trying to turn at least one library into a community library which means cutting the funding and giving people grants which are much lower than the original budget. Then they say “over to you” for the community to run it with no long-term commitment at all. This means they are basically gradually offloading services on to the community to provide. They call it the “Cooperative Council” in Lambeth. Cameron calls “the Big Society”. But in Barnet they’re actually trying to sell the library building aren’t they?
L: Yes they want to raise money. They want to sell the building and there’s a rumour that they also want to sell the green spaces either side in a package deal to a developer so that will probably by pushing on £1 million. The building’s just been locally listed a week ago but it doesn’t really stop them from selling it on but it’s just something else to help.
ACI: So what do you think is going to happen at the court case on 17-18 December?
L: It’s very up in the air. With these kind of cases where it seems obvious to anyone who looks at the situation that we’re in the right. If its just down to a point of law, whose the rightful owner of the land, we don’t really have much of a case. We’re never going to win the case that we are the rightful owners but what we can do is delay and one of the things that the council hasn’t sufficiently done is prove that they actually own the land. The deeds that they provided are very old, very sketchy. We’re also going to challenge the fact that they say they didn’t give us a licence to stay here. Because they met with us time and time again. Gave us different options. They were very keen on getting us into the Arts Depot round the corner and getting us to start a library up there and so they entered into negotiations from day one. That really is an implied licence as far as we’re concerned.
But I think the key is really to see if we can get it delayed for another several months and really pressure the council to put forward a reasonable proposal. The community are already thinking of putting in a community right to buy and the Save Friern Barnet Library Group are still pressuring the council to reopen it and I think its good that both strategies are explored because it is a wonderful building.
ACI: The council cabinet was occupied this week wasn’t it?
L: When they tried to push through the One Barnet plan? Yes that happened a couple of days ago, Thursday. It was the first part of the One Barnet programme outsourcing to Capita. They’re not 100% sure because they haven’t read the contract but it looks about a £320 million contract given to Capita to run a lot of services. The entire thing is £1 billion. But the £320 million to Capita was voted through on Thursday night.
What happened was that there were public questions from residents. The questions were avoided in the usual manner by councilors and towards the end the residents decided that, in their words, it wasn’t a democratic process and they decided to take over the room where the meeting was being held. The councillors had to leave and go into another room and a forum was held by protesters.
There was a big discussion on what the next steps should be. What demands Barnet Alliance should put on the council and what kind of direct action. It was quite inspiring. I was there, it was really beautiful to watch because it’s been a campaign that’s gone from very classical kind, using petitions, lobbying politicians etc to taking direct action and really upping the ante a little bit.
ACI: So 17-18 December court case is a really the crucial date?
L: Yes. Even if we lose we can appeal so we’re definitely here for Christmas unless the judge doesn’t give a stay of execution which would be surprising. But we want a lot of people to come out on 17th and 18th to support our fight. We could have hundreds outside the court house which is going to make a big impression. Although they don’t make any difference in law they do tend to sway the magistrates’ opinion on how they’re going to deal with the case.
On Barnet campaign