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Sunday, 18 March 2018

Why Brent Should Have Paused on Fire Safety

Details are emerging from the Moore-Bick and Police enquiries that the water proofing of the cladding and the robustness of the fire doors may both have been factors in the spread of the fire.  Along with the cost, that is why I suggested delaying a response until the Enquiries had reported.  It is entirely possible that more than one potential improvement will be identified and it will not all just be about one form of cladding.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Northants To be Abolished

Illustrating the truth that once you get into trouble in one are all sorts of other problems may follow, Northants has now been officially told it should be abolished.  Meanwhile Northamptonshire County Council also now faces a probe over public health spending.  Apparently, it is now being queried whether Northants was in fact spending grant for public health spending on public health.  If not, it may find itself returning the money on top of all its other cutbacks.

Brent Councillors might ponder some of comments on financial management in particular (according to the Guardian): "There was a lack of realism in business plans, and savings targets were frequently not met. Senior councillors and officials ignored or evaded criticism and challenge, it says, and budgets were set by without regard to need, demand or deliverability. “Living within budget constraints is not a part of the culture at NCC,” the report concludes.

The full report is available here

Friday, 16 March 2018

Does Brent Libraries Strategy Need to be Changed?

Returning to yesterday's comment on Brent's Libraries Transformation, let's go though it all again for the benefit of Scott the commentator.

Is the 2011 Libraries Strategy Unpopular?
Not to judge by the numbers of visits and loans, both of which are substantially up at a time when most UK library authorities have seen a complete collapse in usage.  Similarly the people who actually use the service say that their experience of Brent libraries has improved since 2009.

Finally, if the strategy was unpopular one might expect to see that reflected in Brent election results since 2011 when the decision was taken.  I cannot see any such result in 2012 or 2013 (when the controversy was at its height), nor in 2014 (which actually saw Labour get its best ever result in Council elections in the Borough, nor in the General Elections of 2015 or 2017.  If the strategy was unpopular, where is the evidence to show that?

Are Volunteer Libraries a form of Privatisation?
In examples of this strategy across the country, such as that currently being undertaken by Northamptonshire, the plan appear to be to take a publicly owned building and either give it to an association of private individuals or retain ownership but allow the building to be used rent free.  That sounds like privatisation to me.  Most of these decisions appear to be an attempt to rid the relevant Council of the financial cost, including the management cost, so in most cases Council staff will no longer be providing the services and will no longer be in control of the building.  I have looked at examples around the country, often via the excellent Public Libraries News, and there seem to be surprising few (in fact no as far as I can see) attempts to lay down what these buildings are for once the Council is no longer in them.  The new organisations have complete control to (for instance) refuse entry to people they object to.

All this suggests to me that the buildings are effectively under forms of private control.

In the case of a charity, it is the people running the charity (as regulated by the Charity Commissioners).  The building is no longer like (say) Brent Library service which is subject to all the public sector reporting rules, with elected councillors ultimately responsible and legal duties to be accessible to the public.

Are the Allocation of CIL in this case the Best Use of the Money?
We would have a better idea of the answer to that if we knew who was making the decision and why, which is what I have written to Brent Council to enquire.

The process seems far from clear and could be, in a number of ways, unlawful and/or an extremely bad use of funds.

I would argue for this not to be the case, any grant would have to address a real need, would have to be assessed as meeting that real need on an ongoing basis, and if an asset is handed over there has to be a clawback mechanism in case the need is no longer being addressed.

In addition, to those fairly basic rules, it sounds to me that there is a real danger of the Council playing "favourites" with particular community organisations.

Does Brent Libraries Strategy Need to be Changed?
Finally, to answer the question at the top of this post, I would say not really in which case what precisely is the Council currently doing?

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Queen's Parade Development Rejected

I understand the Queen's Parade development proposal in Willesden High Road has been rejected by a substantial margin.  This probably won't be an end to proposals for the site, but it will give an opportunity for rethinking which I hope the applicant will take up.  Essentially, the members over rule the officers' recommendation.  I doubt whether the alleged false letters were a factor, although they may have added to members' unease. 

Willesden Art Gallery Latest

Willesden Art Gallery, just off from the Library on the ground floor, has yet another artist featured.  An example of the exhibition is above.  I really am very struck at the high quality of the exhibitions there, which seem to me noticeably up from a few years ago. 

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Brent Adopting Library Privatisation

Brent Council appears to be adopting Library privatisation just as other authorities shun it.  On Monday, the Cabinet agreed to effectively hand over a quarter of a million of taxpayers money to the "Preston Community Library" Group with apparently no questions asked.  It is unclear to me whether Council officers will have informed members of the points I raised in my email to them on Saturday.

Of course, it is the members of the Executive who actually take the decision so if there are legal issues arising (including possible criminal prosecution) it will be the councillors who get indicted.

It is very odd that Brent are adopting a rather incompetent form of privatisation of taxpayers assets just as the Carillion debacle is making it unfashionable.  Indeed, had previous Brent decisions gone the other way, Brent would have privatised its libraries and be now taking them back in house following the Carillion collapse.

I find it very hard to see why Brent Council is so interested in privatising libraries.

Meanwhile, Martin Francis reports that the same officer who oversees this belated privatisation of Brent Libraries also seems to have an insouciant attitude to whether objections to the Queens Parade development in Willesden are actually coming from members of the public. Of course, as with any planning application it is not a vote so if members conclude that the supporting letters are from the same source it does not in that sense matter.  The merits of the application will be the same whether the letters are genuine or not.

UPDATE 15.03.18

I think Scott needs to think a bit more about his comment, and possibly (re?)read the post above.  The Brent Libraries Transformation Project has been an undoubted success and this was recognised by a vote of full Council as recently as January 2018, which stated that one of the best achievements of the Brent Labour administration since 2010 was: "Transforming  our libraries  service into one of the most successful and  most accessible in the country".  Given the facts, that conclusion is fairly irresistible to any reasonable person. 

The post above also shows that a publicly owned, publicly run public service is every bit as good as privatised libraries or "mutuals" (which often aren't) and as volunteer libraries.  It further questions whether what is going on with Preston "Library" is a proper procurement or simply an exercise in cronyism.

I will will probably do a more in depth post on this later on (UPDATE: Here is the promised more in depth post).

By the way I already raised questions about the CIL payments in Wembley in this post.  

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Barham Park Again

Some time ago Brent Council, through its peculiar constitutional arrangement, leased out the main building in Barham Park to a charity called ACAVA.  As usual, there all kinds of criticisms of this move.  There was a dogged attempt to refuse planning permission, and an attack on the ACAVA lease decision, although fortunately no repeat of the Paul Lorber inspired attempt to build on the park

The latest minutes show that the Park is functioning normally.  There are ongoing problems with rough sleepers, arson attacks and so on, but have the buildings occupied helps contain the problem, and the income of the Trust is much improved.