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Monday, 23 April 2018

The Limits of Library Litigation

It may well be that the recently launched case against Northamptonshire Council for failing in its library duty is successful in the Courts.  It certainly sounds as if the library cuts were examined, rejected and then reintroduced simply to meet the budget emergency.  It certainly does not sound as if they have gone through the kind of careful and thorough assessment of need that Brent did in implementing the Libraries Transformation Project.

The problem is more one of the real world.  If Northants now loses, it just doesn't have the money any more.  The litigants can win technically, but the entire organisation is about to be abolished. 

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Brent Green Party Manifesto 2018

Wembley Matters (i.e. Martin Francis) has published the Green Party Manifesto for Brent in the 2018 local elections.  The manifesto explicitly references the Wembley Matters blog as a campaigning tool so I suppose I am justified in regarding it as at least a semi-official Green Party platform.  It argues that Brent Council needs an "effective opposition" and that the Green Party is best placed to provide this.

I would question the second half of that statement.  Let's go through the record and compare it the manifesto's statements with the reality.

A lot of the manifesto is vague, uncosted and committed to "reviewing" things rather than actually doing stuff, but let us look at specifics.

Affordable Housing

The document complains in very vague terms about the term "affordable housing."  It is nice to start on a note of some sort of agreement.  Central government policies have over years minimised affordable housing as I have often pointed out.  However, the Greens have not really engaged with the key mechanisms for this minimisation, the biggest of which is the "viability assessment" which looks like it is finally getting close to being changed.  Other than a vague generalised complaint the Greens don't really seem to be pursuing the details of the trade offs necessary in making housing schemes happen, and their London spokeswoman appears to have embarked on a blanket blocking of new housing across London.  The Greens also state that their approach to Planning will be more rigourous, but they don't give any details on how this would be done, and the previous absence of detailed critiques of either planning policy or of individual schemes does not give me confidence.

Supporting Small Businesses and "Eco-business"

Again, we seem quite short on detail here.  Anyone can claim to support small business but the Greens don't seem to give any themes.  They express distaste for the area around Wembley Stadium, where I have expressed doubts of my own, but not made any positive suggestions in (say) how to regenerate high streets.  The Kilburn Times report seems to quote a Green candidate claiming that Brent Council has "brought in" big chains to replace small shops, although I can't imagine how he thinks it has done this.    Again, there does not appear to be much awareness of modern ideas of the importance of maintaining diversity in planning, or using transport policy productively.  I take the "Tech Hub" rhetoric as really just being lip service given the previous opposition to innovations such as Brent Civic Centre or Willesden Library.  Some of the things a Council might usefully do in this area I have suggested here.  

Waste and Street Cleaning

The pledge of value for money in waste and street cleaning I have to see as something of a joke.  Brent went through a lengthy process to negotiate a value for money public realm contract, which delivered substantial changes in both lower costs and improved outcomes.  Far from offering "real opposition", Brent Greens seem to have had nothing to say on this other than attempt to turn the whole thing into a Boycott movement against Israel.  The Greens also make no comment on either the previous improvements to front end recycling or the significant shift away from landfill. 

Parks

The manifesto mentions two parks specifically (King Eddy's (Wembley, I think) and Gladstone Park without acknowledging any of the work of the past few years or again engaging in the details of parks policy.  To give that some perspective Brent has a total of 85 parks and green spaces of varying sizes.  The pledge on restarting a swimming pool in Gladstone Park appears to have no engagement with the climate change problems, planning issues, practical management issues or acknowledgement of the work completed or underway at Willesden Sports Centre, Vale Farm, Moberley Sports Centre or in the Wembley Master Plan.

Air Quality


Here at last we find some detailed suggestions, although they seem rather deficient in awareness of previous policy.  For instance, they don't seem pay attention to planning policy's current emphasis on discouraging car use, the switch to emissions based parking or alterations in street design to shift to more horizontal measures

Schools and Youth Services

The Green manifesto is firmly against academisation, but provides little detail on how the Greens would support schools under current central government policies.  Perhaps wisely, there is no mention of Brent Greens' previous fierce opposition to new school places.  Again, there seems no awareness of the detailed policy context in which Roundwood Youth Centre got built in 2010/11 or why it is preserved.

Public Libraries

There is lip service paid to Brent's public library service although no acknowledgement that Brent can probably claim to have one of the most successful library services in the UK.  There seems to be reluctance to admit that Brent Greens have supported a privatisation model instead (although there is an uncosted pledge to introduce a privatised library in Neasden).  There is no mention of their fierce opposition to the whole Brent Libraries Transformation or apparent awareness of way in which the continued pressure to support privatised libraries undermines public provision.  There is also no mention of the arts or of the universal offer in libraries

Disability Access

Finally there is some detail given on disability access, although no acknowledgement of how previous Green opposition to new buildings has impeded disabled access to public services.  The disability comments seem to mainly see disability access as a role for TfL, which is of course a quite separate body to Brent Council.

Altogether, I would be sceptical of Brent Green's claims to believe in "effective opposition" since that requires scrutiny of the detailed policy whereas their record is one of broad brush campaigning, ignoring detail and seeming to want to score debating points rather than achieve substantive change.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Grenfell Continues to Ripple Out

The knock on effects of Grenfell continue to ripple out.  As I expected the Enquiry is indicating a number of flaws not just with the cladding but also with other aspects of the compartmentalisation.  In particular many aspects of the window insulation left gaps through which the fire could spread either outward or inward.  Secondly, many of the doors did not close automatically in the way they were supposed to, helping the fire to spread.

I hope that Brent is going to take these factors into account when repairing its own buildings.  I think more than ever the Council was premature in committing to the spend it did.

Meanwhile, there is a massive shock in store for leaseholders who may find themselves unable to move and the value of their investment essentially destroyed.  The second aspect of the Guardian piece is that it indicates that the government's Help to Buy scheme may leave the Treasury massively out of pocket if it has lent to some of the properties affected.  Yet another indication of George Osborne's folly with finance.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Surestart and Libraries

Up to 1,000 Surestart Centres have been closed down, but estimates vary between that upper number and as low as 500.  That illustrates just how hard it is to work out the implications of the huge assault on Council finances of the past few years.  Journalists and "campaigners" sometimes portray this as a deliberate effort to obscure the truth, but in fact it is a natural result of trying to cope with the problems.

The estimate above refers to "hollowing out" which given the budget losses was pretty inevitable.  The NAO estimated that Councils had been forced to cut the overall budget by about half.  The main alternatives are (as with libraries) all out closure or restriction of access, for example by means testing.

The picture is also made harder to follow by co-location.  It is interesting to see in the Guardian piece that some of the early years demand appears to have shifted in the direction of libraries, which certainly seems likely to be true.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Labour on Housing

Lots of sensible stuff on housing to be found in John Healey's piece for the Guardian, quite apart from the eye catching stuff about abolishing the affordable rent definition.  

UPDATE

Red Brick has its analysis here.  

How Not to Privatise

I have heard back from Brent Council regarding the meetings Cllr Muhammed Butt and the Preston Community Library group.  He has had a number of meetings with them.  No records have been kept of the content of those meetings, and where staff were present they have all now left the Council, so Brent Council can only know the nature of those discussions via the recollection of Cllr Butt or of the Preston Library Group.

Cllr Butt is now pushing for the Preston Library group to be given significant amounts of taxpayers money and possibly effective ownership of a building for a "peppercorn rent".

This is, to put it mildly, not a transparent way of doing business.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Theresa May's Hostile Environment and the Blame Game

As I suggested the other day, Theresa May's "hostile environment" policy appears to be unravelling.  I suspect both that the Windrush issue is still being underplayed and that the blame game will deepen.

The numbers cited by the Home Office appear to be very low.  I have personally met people with this kind of problem _ that they came to the UK as children without official documentation at a time when that that was deemed not necessary and they are only now finding out the problems.  I find it hard to believe that there are not more than the forty odd cases cited.  The problem in the cases I have personally encountered related to people from what were then UK colonies in the West Indies.  This goes well beyond 1948. 

I didn't realise Sarah Teather's personal involvement in creating the policy as reported by the Guardian today.  Given she was representing an area with so many West Indians and other immigrant groups I am surprised she was not more vocal in trying to get the policy changed at least once she had been removed from office.  It is, after all, a policy of institutionalised harassment of ethnic minorities.  The sheer incompetence with which it has been and is being implemented come on top of that. 

Apprenticeships: Some Flaws

There have been recent media stories reminding us all about the importance of looking at policy detail, this time on apprenticeships.

This policy has faded from view after the outrage when the current wave of apprenticeships were voted through.  I think people genuinely just forgot about such matters once they go out the headlines, which is why it is important for some one to keep track.

The outrage was generated when George Osborne set an obvious elephant trap for Labour when he included a scheme for three million apprenticeships in the 2015 government's new welfare bill imposing deep cuts.  The trap was to get Labour to vote against the cuts, and then portray Labour as being against training people for jobs.  Acting Labour Leader Harriet Harman sought to sidestep the trap by abstaining at Second Reading and moving reasoned amendments later.  Anyone familiar with Parliamentary protocols would know that Second Reading is for the principle of the Bill, and detailed criticisms are made in amendments.  Some Jeremy Corbyn supporters (it was during the Labour Leadership race tried to portray this as just failing to oppose the government.

The Bill is designed to charge an apprenticeship levy on all larger employers and then to allow them to claim some of the money back if they take on apprenticeships.

We now have more detail on how the policy is working in practice:
  • Some "apprenticeships" are actually just low paid work that does not actually rain people.
  • Some apprenticeships are things like MBAs that employers are claiming for that they would almost certainly support anyway.
  • Some school are paying the levy but can't claim monetary support because there are no recognised apprenticeships in the teaching profession.
In other words, these are all means to claim the money for work that isn't justified or in the case of schools a financial hit without the ability to get the money back.

That is why you need continuous scrutiny of policies not just relying on the headlines.