Saving Friern Barnet Library – Notes from a McKenzie Friend

I’m passionate about literacy. About books, about writing, and above all, about the potential words have to change the direction of a person’s life. That’s why fighting for a library isn’t just about fighting for a library.

It’s about fighting for opportunity.

I hadn’t thought I would be sitting on the front bench at a County Court quite this early on in my fledgling legal career (as a McKenzie litigant friend of the defendant – to assist and to advise but not to represent). But doing so made an odd sort of sense.

These proceedings determined whether the library stayed open, or closed. And I really question whether I would have been sitting on that front bench, and whether I would have drafted the defence which was accepted as arguable, in the first instance, without having had my own local library to begin with. As it happens, I was delighted to hear from the judge that the library stays open until least Christmas of this year.

Celebrating outside Barnet County Court –
Pete Phoenix, Reema Patel, Cllr Pauline Coakley-Webb, Rabbi Jeffrey Newman, Cllr Barry Rawlings (left to right)

It’s rare for possession proceedings to make it through one hearing – let alone three, which is the situation at present. All judges have been mindful of one single factor – the need to give due weight to the public interest. They are to be commended for this fair and balanced approach. It makes me proud to be a part of the legal community in the United Kingdom.

Behind myself and Pete Phoenix – the main defendant, literally and metaphorically, was a packed courtroom full of well-wishers. They included Save Friern Barnet library campaigners, local councillors, residents, the stars of the Barnet blogosphere, other defendants, as well as community and religious leaders. I’d like to thank them all. Knowing they were behind both myself and Phoenix on the front bench made a huge difference – even as it ramped up the stakes, and yes, even the nerves. And the roar I heard from behind me when the judge left the room was absolutely priceless. I won’t forget it for a while.

These aren’t mere possession proceedings. They are about issues that reach far wider than that. That’s why we had German television, French radio and two staff from The Guardian present at the proceedings. And I think that this dispute is much more about the judgments about our priorities we are making; at a local level, but flowing from national decisions – which are having national repercussions. Cameron talks about a broken society, but he is in part an advocate for that broken society.

We live in a world where the projected income of £400,000 for a large, beautiful and historic building is somehow worth more than the social value of a library. We live in a world where our public bodies and public officials appointed to those bodies flagrantly ignore standards in public life. And we live in a world where our public officials do not seem to understand that they are stewards of public assets; not owners of them, free to dispose of them as they will.

When the Occupy movement reopened the library – they climbed in through an open window, and did precisely that; run it as a library – not for the benefit of themselves, but for the benefit of the entire community.  The level of support the movement attracted from the community, who donated over 5000 books, are running pilates and belly-dancing classes, music nights, and book signings from the building is proof of the fact that – possession proceedings or no possession proceedings – the library is a focal point for the community.

Reporters in the library

The building itself also has a long history – and is inextricably linked to the community. It was given by the Carnegie Trust to the residents of Barnet some 100 plus years ago. The proposal that such an old, historical, unique building should be sold by Barnet Council despite fervent local community opposition and despite the fact the building was itself bought and sold for community purposes is outrageous.

So the fight continues, and the hearing is scheduled for just before Christmas. I’ll be supporting on the run-up to this as well. But, in the meantime, there’s Will Self, pilates, and a local library filled with 5000+ books to look forward to, and a fantastic Save Friern Barnet Library campaign to support.


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