She was challenged on issues that ranged from anger over the downsizing of Chipping Barnet Library and the increase in local traffic congestion, to her personal dilemma on whether the law should be changed to allow assisted dying, and finally to some especially topical questions about her staunch support as a pro-Brexiteer for the Leave campaign in the European Referendum.
Nicholas Jones, chair of Barnet Society, conducted the session at the Pennefather Hall, Christ Church (20.1.2017), reading out the questions that had been emailed in advance for Theresa Villiers, and then widening the discussion to include supplementary questions from the floor.
Over 70 people attended – one of the highest attendances in recent years – and the audience included members of the Barnet Residents Association and other local groups. Afterwards there were sandwiches, tea and cakes to round off the afternoon.
Chipping Barnet Library
NJ (Nicholas Jones) began by raising the temporary closure of Chipping Barnet Library while it was being downsized to self-service operation, and much of the floor area converted to commercial office space. He said the Barnet Society had objected to the loss of community space, and as a protest had organised a mass read-in outside the library on the day it closed.
Adele Winston accused Barnet Council of showing scandalous contempt towards scholarship when other more deprived London boroughs offered spectacular library facilities which were widely used by school pupils and students.
TV said she campaigned to keep all the libraries open in the Borough of Barnet and was pleased this was being achieved. She insisted that the future of Chipping Barnet was secure, but budget reductions meant reduced funding for the library service.
Self-service operation had been trialled successfully at Edgware, and even abroad, and it would enable the library to open longer hours. She did not accept that the public would be fearful of using an unmanned library monitored by closed-circuit television. “Security of users is not the problem...the key issue is the possibility of people stealing books.”
Battle of Barnet
NJ said the Barnet Society had welcomed the Heritage Lottery Fund’s decision to grant £98,600 to the Battle of Barnet Project. This would enable Barnet Museum to promote and explain Barnet’s role in the Wars of the Roses and would build on the findings of the archaeological survey that has been taking place on land in and around Kitts End Lane.
Gordon Kerr called for a far higher level of scrutiny into the Kitts End archaeological dig as he believed there was compelling evidence to suggest that the core of the confrontation took place on Hadley Green.
TV welcomed the archaeological investigation, supported its continuation and praised the work of the Battle of Barnet Project.
Deciding where the Battle took place in 1471 was a job for the experts, but she thought there was a great potential for engaging local interest in the Battle and putting Barnet on the map. Tewkesbury marked the anniversary of its Battle with an annual medieval festival from which the whole town benefited.
Traffic congestion and road safety
John Silvertown said that with average speed down to 7 mph in London were there too many cars on the road, and would increasing road capacity would simply aggravate the problem?
TV accepted there was high car use, and the answer was to continue to increase public transport. Part of the problem was that transport links were mostly in and out of London, and London needed to improve connections radially.
Clare O’Sullivan asked if action could be taken to stop people sitting in cars with engines running causing air pollution.
TV said that engines on modern cars were designed to stop when cars were stationary, so as new cars were produced their use should increase and reduce pollution. She thought the pollution caused by diesel cars needed to be looked at, but the government had a programme to incentivise people to buy electric cars by providing a subsidy.
Jean Samuel asked for consideration to be given to the installation of an additional pedestrian crossing on Barnet Road in the section between the existing crossings at the Wellhouse Lane junction and the Gate public house. NJ suggested a crossing either at the junction with Quinta Drive or the Arkley war memorial.
TV thought this was a very good idea and she would be happy to take it up with the local authority.
Barry Blain urged that more should be done to improve road safety by mending potholes and cleaning and re-siting road signs hidden from view.
TV acknowledged that road maintenance budgets had been cut and that pot holes and dirty road signs were a danger. Whenever she saw a particularly grubby road sign she reported this to Barnet Council. She urged local residents to do likewise and said that if she was emailed with the details she would notify the council.
Similarly, potholes were a hazard, especially as she was a cyclist and again she reported them to the council and urged residents to do the same. Pot holes were a high priority on main roads and TfL had responded quickly to ones identified on the A1000.
Protecting the Green Belt and Ark Academy in Underhill
NJ said the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan was preparing a new London Plan to which the Barnet Society had submitted evidence on the need to protect the Green Belt. He asked TV to expand on her view that she wanted the Mayor to go even further. She had not yet seen a case where she could support new housing on Green Belt land around Chipping Barnet.
TV said she was definite about her position: she could not support new housing on the Green Belt as it was a vital environmental resource. She praised those who had the foresight to plan the Green Belt years ago, because without that protection, there would be a huge city stretching from London to Birmingham. There were some exceptions to enable schools etc. to be built, but although the country needed more housing, it should not be on the Green Belt.
Robin Bishop accepted that housing rules were straight forward, but schools and playing fields were also major threats, such as the proposed Ark Academy in Underhill.
TV said she had objected to both the siting and the plans for the new school. The concept was good, but the proposed school was in the wrong place. Her concern was over the scale of the school suggested for the Underhill site and the adequacy of roads around the school, and overspill parking.
She thought it Inevitable a school would be built on the site, but she would like to see something a lot smaller, and she would prefer it should be a secondary school only as the local area had good primary schools. There was a need for more school spaces in the Borough, but not in Chipping Barnet as this would involve pupils having to travel to the school, exacerbating traffic problems.
Threat to Pharmacies
Jon Supran asked about the threat to local chemists because of a change in government subsidies that might result in more money going to the large pharmacy chains such as Boots to the detriment of the independent chemists in Barnet High Street.
TV (Theresa Villiers) said she had met the pharmacists and had raised their concerns with the government, and she was confident independent chemists would be safeguarded. Her understanding was that the NHS was committed to use pharmacists more in order to use NHS money in the best way possible. She did not think we would lose pharmacies, but that they would provide a wider service.
NJ said a question from Helen and Dave Howson was probably a first. They had been filling the garden bird feeder at their home off the Meadway and suddenly noticed above them a drone – the size of a small dustbin lid – flying a few feet over their heads. What regulations were in place to protect the public from drones?
TV said the regulator for aircraft and the air space was the Civil Aviation Authority, but drones were unregulated at the moment. There was a problem over drones being used to get drugs into prisons and they could be used by terrorists.
She would raise this with the government and press for a debate in Parliament. Irresponsible use could cause problems near airports, and much more needed to be done to ensure they were used properly
Traffic generated from Gas Board site
A questioner from the floor raised the impact of the housing scheme on the former Gas Board site in New Barnet. This was a huge development, and there did not seem to be any recognition of the impact it would have on traffic in the area.
TV said there was a recognition that this scheme needed to be very dense in order to pay for the clean-up of the site. One proposal was for an eight-storey block of flats. The developers had bought some of the houses in front of the site to make a gateway to the scheme. She thought a scheme would be approved eventually and she recognised it would have a major impact on local traffic.
A questioner from the floor raised the problems facing ambulances and buses turning in and out of Wellhouse Lane at the junction with Wood Street.
NJ informed the meeting that contractors had moved in to start work on a new roundabout.
TV said she would be keeping an eye on the project given the importance of the junction at the approach to Barnet Hospital.
Derelict Marie Foster home
Jenny Kobish asked why, after so many years, no decision had been made about the future of the derelict Marie Foster home in Wood Street?
TV said the continuing dereliction and indecision over the future of the former Marie Foster home was an outrage. “It is just criminal that it has been left as it is for so long. I have raised this at the cabinet table, I have raised this in debate at Westminster, and I raise it every three months with the NHS.”
She said the root of the problem was that every now and again the NHS looked again at the site for possible use by the health service. One option that came and went was the possibility of using it as a surgery and health centre for general practitioners.
“The last I heard from NHS property services, just before Christmas, is that the NHS had almost made a decision that it was not needed for health purposes, but the very latest is that the NHS are looking at it again for health purposes. Either the NHS uses it for health purposes or allows it to be developed...I promise I will keep on banging on about its future until something is sorted outed.”
Gil Exon asked TV if she would support the Assisted Dying Bill to prevent people having to endure unnecessary suffering, and also to reduce the traumatic distress of relatives.
TV had voted against the issue the last time it was debated. The concept of assisted dying presented a dilemma: it was not an easy issue to resolve. Whatever the safeguards that were put in place, she feared people would opt for assisted dying because they would not want to be a burden to their families, and would be pressurised to take their own life. When Parliament held its debate, MPs voted decisively to refuse.
Support for the disabled
Penny Baxter asked why the Government was continuing to cut support to disabled people especially those who wanted to work.
TV said the government was spending more on PIP than used to be spent on DLA. Ministers were anxious to provide support for disabled people who wanted to work, and to encourage employers to make it possible. Disability pensions have been protected.
NJ asked about the shortage of hospital beds and delays and cancellations of operations.
Neil Kobish suggested the government should put a few extra pence on income tax or national insurance to pay for improvements in the NHS. Was there any reason why he, as a better-off pensioner needing more NHS services, should be excused having to contribute towards national insurance?
TV insisted the government was putting more money into the NHS, but demands were increasing because of an ageing population. She agreed that more money was needed for the health service and for properly funded social care. Probably there would have to be an increase in council tax as well as other taxes, but governments also had to look at areas where they could save money.
Repairs to Houses of Parliament
Heather Jones asked whether it would make sense to move Parliament out of London to a more central position, such as the West Midlands, given that the scale of repairs to the Palace of Westminster was tremendous and very costly?
TV said the Palace of Westminster was a world heritage site so it must be properly maintained. It could probably be done more cheaply if the MPs moved out, but if they did leave London they could not hold the government to account as ministers and their departments would remain in London.
NJ asked TV to reflect on her previous role as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland given the impact of the recent resignation of the deputy first minister Martin McGuiness, the collapse of the power sharing executive, and forthcoming elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Jenny Remfry asked what TV thought the future held for Northern Ireland given the present impasse between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein, and concern over the future of the border with the Irish Republic after Brexit and uncertainty over future relations with the European Union.
TV said there were always problems trying to get the two main political parties to agree to compromise, but she still thought it would be possible to resolve the issues as no-one in Northern Ireland wanted a return to the Troubles, nor did they want direct rule from London.
The NI finance minister had announced a public inquiry about the controversy over the local heating scheme and there would be an interim report. There were always periods of crisis, but she remained optimistic.
NJ said Barnet voted 62% to remain in the EU, but TV had campaigned to leave and regularly spoke up in support of Brexit.
Graham Hawkins asked what TV believed was her responsibility to her Chipping Barnet constituents. Why wasn’t she representing the majority opinion within the constituency to remain?
TV said the Conservative Party manifesto had promised the government would hold an in/out referendum. There was a huge turnout and the government’s responsibility was to implement the vote while not neglecting the views of remain voters. The government’s aim was to continue to work hard in preparations for negotiations with the EU and to liaise with European countries.
She thought the Prime Minister Theresa May was right to try to create a new relationship with Europe. She was convinced the country would be better off outside the EU because the UK could control its own laws and set out its own priorities.
She was optimistic about the chances of protecting the City of London and confident the UK would get a deal to protect the banks.
She said Barclays thought London would remain the Financial capital of Europe as it was in the interests of both Europe and UK because of the depth of the infra-structure in the City of London and the liquidity that was available, which would ensure that the UK could trade across EU borders.
NJ said that questioners on the social website StreetLife had raised TV’s prospects as Conservative MP for Chipping Barnet.
Did she intend to resign and fight a parliamentary by-election campaigning for Brexit? Did she think her pro-Brexit position might result in the Conservatives losing the Chipping Barnet seat if there was a snap general election or a second referendum?
TV said she went with her conscience, and if in the future, she lost the vote in Chipping Barnet she would know that she had been true to her own beliefs as she felt Britain would be a better place out of Europe.