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Saturday, 20 December 2014

Brent Council Relying on Iain Duncan Smith

A common theme I have identified in Brent's budget options is that many of them appear to be very hard to deliver.  Nowhere is this more true than in the proposed changes around benefit processing. 

This assumes that, under the inspired leadership of Iain Duncan Smith, we can all rely universal credit going forward as planned.  Given that everyone apart from the minister thinks universal credit is going to be a disaster, this does not inspire me with confidence.  Nonetheless, Brent proposes reducing capacity on the assumption that switching people to electronic claiming will work and happen on time.  This despite the fact that so far nothing of the kind has happened

It further worries me that Council reserves are earmarked specifically in advance.  Effectively, that means they are not really reserves, but allocated resources for specific spending.  In other words, the level of reserves is being cut for an entirely predictable one off expenditure.  That is a misuse of reserves

Friday, 19 December 2014

Half Measures in Kilburn

In Kilburn High Road recently, I noticed that part of the Brent part of the street appears to have some rather miserable Christmas decorations attached.  I wonder why that is, as Brent Council to cancel such arrangements back in 2011.  Wherever the money has come from has seen a cut in another part of the budget, and such cuts should be made in an open, transparent and accountable manner.  It also looks a bit odd that there is nothing on the Camden side.  As I have remarked before, Brent and Camden really should work together on Kilburn High Road. 

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Possible Abolition of Ward Ward Working

Hidden away in the Brent Council Budget options is the drastic reduction, or perhaps total abolition of ward working.  One of the fears I have about options such as this is that people only understand the full implications once they have been voted through, and it is too late to change them. Abolishing ward working would not only undermine the role of councillors in the community, but also social cohesion and arts funding.

It is also an example of highly visible Council activity that benefits the community as a whole, which is something coming under greater and greater threat as budgets tighten.  Essentially, the balance of spend is going increasing towards a smaller number of people with severe needs and less towards universal services that are visible to everyone.  This is importnat as it damages the credibility of local government with the public as a whole, since the public see less and less Council activity that directly impacts themselves.

UPDATE

For the benefit of the commentator below, many of the posts on this blog are about possible savings, and I think I have probably made more suggestions on how to make savings, and been more willing to defend them than anyone else.

The key thing is to work out what your priorities are, articulate them in a strategy, ensure that your favoured proposals will deliver them credibly and then defend them with a degree of fortitude when challenged rather than being blown off course.  Many of the problems that some councillors feel are through not sticking to such a course.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Was Susan Hill Inspired by Thomas Hardy?

I wonder whether the Susan Hill poem being used in BBC Radio3's Carol competition was originally inspired as a riposte to the Thomas Hardy poem I quoted last year. 

Council Tax Lessons from Scotland

I note one of the counter-arguments to a Council Tax rise in Brent is that the government gives a grant not to raise Council Tax which offsets most of the loss.  This is true, but to look at why it is not as simple as it seems it is worth looking north of the Border.

Scotland, under the SNP, pioneered the idea of a Council Tax freeze, and suggested it to the Tories to the South.  This was introduced in 2007-8.  As the grant has been extended for freezing each year, the cost to Holyrood has gone up with each year.  For 2015-16, it stands at £560 million, and the cumulative cost 20 £2,520 million.  In my judgement, Holyrood is likely to decide at some point that the burden is no longer affordable.  At that point, Holyrood can simply not renew the grant and leave Councils to make up the gap.  Since Councils are effectively limited to a 2% Council Tax rise by the referendum threat, that effectively means that they could only make up the gap with a further round of spending cuts equivalent to several years worth of potential Council Tax rises.

That is what I mean by Brent Council digging its own grave. 

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Cuts to Legal Services in Brent

In thinking about budget cuts, it is part of the standard shtick to talk about "frontline services".  The implication is that everyone else is presumably surplus to requirements.  I have always found this rather irritating.  One of the hidden dangers of the Budget proposals in Brent at the moment is that things like legal services can be easily downgraded without cost.  In fact, I suspect there could be real hidden costs in downgrading to be paid during the course of future procurements or judicial reviews, long after the decisions have been made.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Scottish Wildcats

I have mentioned Scottish wildcats before.  I am delighted that new money has been released to protect one of our most charismatic fauna. 

How Plausible are Brent Council Savings?

I have been looking again at some of the proposed savings in Brent Council's budget proposals, and once again wondering how plausible they are.  In some case, such Adult Social Care thyere is a lack of detail.  I mentioned before "contain demographic pressure within existing budgets" sounds fine, but how do you do it?  Lets look at some other examples:

Close a Leisure Centre.  Which one I wonder?  Willesden is part of a PFI agreement.  Vale Farm is part of the wider Ealing/Harrow contract that Brent got an award for.  Difficult to see how you can backtrack out of those.  Moberly is Westminster operated despite its Brent location so it is under Westminster's control.  That leaves Bridge Park in Stonebridge, which is subject to a clawback arrangement thanks to the grant that established it in the 1980s.  Thus, all of these appear to be subject either to long term contracts, or to a clawback that effectively operates as a poison pill to closure in a similar way to the Brent Museum.

Cease all Youth Services.  Again, this sounds difficult for legal reasons.  Closing Roundwood Youth Centre would likely mean repaying the government grant that established it. I imagine other aspects of this proposal, such as closing the Youth Parliament, would attract controversy. 

A "Partnership Model" for Childrens Centres.  This sounds reminiscent of some of the library debates.  Greater reliance on volunteers, hollowing out of the offer and (as an alternative) closing some of the centres and concentrating resources (I assume) on a smaller number of buildings.  Relying more on volunteers, is different in this sector as there are a number of established groups that follow this model, although whether there would be similar quality is questionable.  The experience of libraries is also relevant in that, in Brent, the reduction of buildings did not lead to the fall in usage which had been anticipated by some opponents.  However, I really wonder whether Brent would now have the resilience to actually push through the political controversy that would inevitably arise from this option.  There may also be another set of "poison pill" arrangements that make actual closure problematic.