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Sunday, 25 September 2016

A Sorry Mess at Barham Trust

The Barham Trust minutes are now out and confirm what I had already heard, that the councillors on the committee weakly allowed Paul Lorber to browbeat them into giving him rent free space after he had previously agreed to pay rent on it. 

It is interesting that that Mr Philip Bromberg of the Preston Library group also spoke.  Of course he has no direct interest in the Barham site, but I have no doubt he will use the rent free access for a group at Barham to argue for rent free access for his group at Preston.  It would be greatly surprising if other groups don't argue for rent free arrangements for themselves in other buildings.  Thus, the Barham Trust Committee is setting up a situation where groups are given privileged access to Council buildings at taxpayers expense, and public services are cut further as a result. 

Any attempt to resist such pressures will be met with accusations of bias, and of course the number of groups that might make such a demand is practically limitless.  Indeed groups that currently pay the Council rent might well ask why they are doing so. 

The consequences of the decision are therefore considerably more extensive than just the Barham Trust, and likely to lead to political controversies in future. 

As well as being bad budgeting and bad politics, I suspect it is also bad law.  As a loss making Trust, cutting the Trust income without any indication that you are doing so for the objectives of the Trust probably puts the councillors in a dodgy position legally.

What a sorry mess.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Graffiti Returns to Kensal Green Tube

I am saddened to see that graffiti has reappeared above Kensal Green station.  Previously this stayed up for years before removal.  I hope it goes quicker this time.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Monitoring Community Libraries in Brent

One of the many problems thrown up by Cllr Butt's suggested of community libraries is the whole idea of monitoring.  Many people seem to think that Councils should just hand out money to worthy groups and assume that they use it widely.  Such an approach is long discredited as potentially leading to corruption or at least a waste of money.  There are dramatic cases, such as Kids Company, where this was disastrous on a grand scale.

A more modern approach is to demand some kind of monitoring.  In Brent, these are normally called Service Level Agreements, and are effectively contracts.  Money is paid to a group in return for certain objectives being achieved. 

My experience of dealing with the various library groups during the Libraries Transformation Project is that this kind of thinking came as a great shock to them.  One of the grounds of their unsuccessful legal challenge to the Council was that they had no idea that this sort of thing might be expected, an idea that the Judge rejected.  In his words (paragraph 91):

"I am satisfied that any group wishing to run a library, whether at its own expense and even more so if at public expense to some degree, should have realised that its experience and financial capability was an issue to be addressed in the consultation process. I do not think that any failing on the part of proposers to know what case they had to meet can fairly be laid at the door of the Council."

My experience of dealing with the library groups in Brent is that they are very dismissive of any such monitoring, financial or otherwise.  I have repeatedly heard them dismiss visit numbers as a criterion, book issues and even the view of library users.  I have never heard any of the groups' suggest alternative measures.  I suspect this is because volunteer libraries just don't seem to perform well on any of the measures that normal public libraries regard as standard.

Monday, 19 September 2016

More Library Bumbling by Butt

I mentioned on Saturday the potential danger of a "community library strategy".  This is the sad, but predictable, result of the way Cllr Butt has been stringing the Preston group along for years.  Indeed, it my just be yet another stage.

What the Preston group really want is to be given the Preston Annexe for free.  As I have explained, that is contrary to the Council's fiduciary duty, and is now made even less possible as a result of its Asset of Community Value status.  Cllr Butt probably doesn't care about either of those in themselves, but I suspect he would be worried about getting caught disregarding them.

There is a fundamental mismatch between the expectations that Cllr Butt encourages and what Brent Council can legally deliver.

The greater danger from his various manoeuvrings is that a Dollis Hill House type situation arises, where huge amounts of officer time and money are spent fruitlessly, and distracting from the challenging but successful job Brent libraries are doing in improving services despite budget cuts.  In other cases elsewhere in the country, this has resulted in the Council staff feeling that they are being forced to devote inordinate time to advising volunteers on how to run services, and the voluntary group resenting what they perceive to be a lack of support.  Indeed many people think that volunteer libraries just can't be made to work as a long term solution.

Certainly, when the Council considered the idea of this kind of "Big Society" approach, it not only decided none of the solutions were viable (a decision that Cllr Butt endorsed at the time), it was actually sued by the groups concerned

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Butt Complaint

The complaint into Cllr Butt breaching the Local Government Code of Conduct has been published.  The full investigation can be found here. The rep[ort to the Standards Committee is here

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Future Warning for Brent Libraries

A little noticed part of the Cabinet papers on Tuesday was the report on library performance.  It mentions the favourable ratings that users give Brent Libraries, but warns that stock issues have been a problem.  As I have mentioned before, there seems to be quite a mismatch between rising visit numbers and the much more limited rise in issues.  These should not obscure the general story of improvement.

In my view, this improvement is put at risk by Cllr Butt's latest expedient of trying to get various groups to write a "community libraries strategy".