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Sunday, 23 July 2017

SME Task Group

Brent Scrutiny has a task group report on encouraging small and medium sized businesses (SMEs).  I fear it is pretty short of positive policy proposals. Although limited, there are a number of things that Councils can do to encourage business such as: improve the public realm in High Streets to attract shoppers, use procurement in a way that is friendly to SMEs and helps "train them up" for contract bidding, hosting a variety of information and support functions including those available in public libraries, using meanwhile uses to keep footfall in Town centres, using intelligent planning and licencing powers to ensure a good mix of uses in High Streets, encourage life long learning in different forms in both schools and public libraries, and considering business needs when setting charges for things like parking controls.

It is a pity that the Task Group did not take the opportunity to make any specific recommendations on these.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Returning to a Zombie Proposal, Bulky Item Collections

Monday's Cabinet papers included a real old stager under the "New Options" appendix. This was charging for bulky waste collection.  The free collection policy was established under the 1998-2006 Labour administration, abolished by the Tory Lib Dem coalition of 2006-2010, and reinstated by the incoming Labour administration in 2010.  Introducing charging was considered by Labour in 2014/15 but again rejected. 

Officers are estimated the income at £250 thousand, although nothing like this has ever been obtained in the past.  When the charges were last introduced in 2007, the revenue was only £53k, and it went down subsequently.  Given that experience, there really is no excuse for Council officers to put forward an estimated income of £250k now. 

Mary Turner

I was sad to learn of the passing away of Mary Turner, long time President of the GMB and also a fixture in Brent politics for as long as I can remember.  Although she was unsuccessful in her bid to become MP for Brent East in 2001 she served more than sixty years as a trade unionist, including twenty years as GMB President.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Getting it Badly Wrong

I have been speculating about the election results, but perhaps a more important issue for the next six months is what is going to happen to the economy.

My view is that it has been drastically mismanaged since George Osborne embarked on his failed austerity project in 2010.  Conventional economists predicted this failure back in 2010, and it always seemed clear that either Osborne didn't understand conventional economics or he was putting his ideological belief in a smaller state ahead of sensible economic policy.

The result was that the UK undertook a sharp fiscal tightening at the same time as maintaining a very loose monetary policy.  The timing of this meant that growth was very poor, tax revenues declined and budget deficit worsened; the opposite of what Osborne set out as his objectives.

Several years later the political authority for yet more austerity is crumbling, as even the Tories are beginning to admit.  Indeed the scrabble among the hitherto defenders of austerity in the Cabinet to back pay rises for the public sector workers they so despise is one of the most striking aspects of the post election landscape.  This collapse was probably inevitable as it was clear that austerity could not continue forever.

Over the last several years a demand for better wages has been building up and is now turning into a recruitment and retention crisis for key workers.  At the same time institutions such as local government have been cut back to the point where they have difficulty functioning at all (as Kensington has graphically illustrated).  This looks like public services going toward catastrophic break down, which force ministers to spend more money at just the moment when that would be most damaging for the economy as it will fuel a surge in inflation _ the opposite of the Keynesian approach.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Tony Blair and Brexit

Tony Blair is regarded by many people these days as automatically discredited in everything he says.  This is a pity, as his most recent analysis of the UK's place in the world has many penetrating insights.  The centrality of the Single Market to future prosperity and the sheer confusion of an election where Labour can lose in Stoke on Trent and Middlesborough but win in Canterbury and Kensington.  Incidentally, his suggestion that he is "dubious" about the effect of Labour's ambiguity on the EU is borne out by some House of Commons Library analysis which suggested pretty much no relationship whatever between the size of the Labour vote and the size of the Leave vote.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Carillion Withdrawing from Libraries?

Carillion has withdrawn from running its libraries contract in Hounslow.  I suspect this has something to do with its dire financial position, which has seen its Chief Executive quit.  The firm is likely to be exiting non-core businesses and running libraries is a relatively new and small area for it.  Hounslow has been developing a policy of taking services in-house (e.g. rubbish collections) for some time now, so this is a natural enough extension of that. 

The news is significant for public libraries outside Hounslow as it also runs libraries in Croydon, Ealing and Harrow (Ealing and Harrow in a linked contract).  Those Councils will now need to decide how to react.  At one stage Brent was mooted as being included in the Ealing/Harrow contract.  Deciding not to do that has dodged a bullet for Brent. 

Post Grenfell Housing Spending

At last full Council, the councillors voted to spend an extra ten million pounds on fire safety measures, and lost no time in issuing a self congratulatory press release on the subject. 

I don't disagree with the substance of this.  If that is the amount needed to make Brent's buildings safe than so be it, but there seems to be no appropriate scrutiny of what the Council is doing.  The decision was off the back of a supplementary report rather than the main agenda so I am not sure how much opportunity the councillors had to digest what they were being asked to do.

The amount authorised (£10 million) appears to be about five times the annual capital spend on fire safety since 2012.  If the Council suddenly has to increase its fire safety spending by 400%, councillors should be asking why such a backlog has built up.  If, as Brent claim, the existing buildings are all safe I don't see the urgency case for immediate investment.  The government is conducting a review of fire safety standards.  The Grenfell Inquiry will specifically address fire safety and may well lead to specific recommendations which cannot, at this moment, be predicted.  We can therefore expect the relevant standards to be changed fairly soon, and Brent may need to go back over the same ground again to make sure it is compliant. 

I suspect the real urgency here is the need to look as if something is being done rather than a proper assessment of need.  In other words the money is for a political gesture rather than a genuine concern over fire safety.

The second point to be made is that Council Housing funds this spending from what is called Housing Revenue Account (HRA) spending.  The money comes from tenants rents, rather than general Council spend.  This system was set up so that Council Housing could have a rational considered business plan.  A sudden increase in capital works will lead to either much higher rents, reduced repairs or reduced spending on new housing.  Given that the number of Council properties in Brent is dwindling, the HRA is likely to see lower revenues in future.  Being forced to take on more debt when income is going down will make the properties harder to manage in future.  There will probably be fewer repairs, and it will be harder to get affordable housing.  The Council may even have to return Right to Buy receipts.

I am not sure that most of the councillors actually understood this. 

Friday, 14 July 2017

Why was 2017 Election Turnout so High?

Thinking more about the General Election result, one of its striking results (along with the return of two party politics in most of the UK) is the relatively high turnout of 68.7%.  This is the highest turnout since Tony Blair's great victory in 1997

One might ask how it happened.

I can think of three possible scenarios.

(a) The first is a sea change in voter attitudes.  It is arguable that the EU referendum gave a graphic demonstration to people that voting really mattered.  You went to bed apparently securely in the EU, and woke up the next morning to a crowing Nigel Farage declaring that Brexit was now irreversible.  That is certainly a stark answer to the many people I have met who feel that voting does not change anything.  Perhaps the EU referendum was a watershed moment in the same way that the Tories reputation for economic competence was broken in 1992, or the Iraq War permanently damaged Labour's reputation in 2003.
(b) It could be a change in campaign techniques.  Labour staffers are certainly claiming that 2017 saw some game changing innovations which had the effect of raising Labour turnout.  The main weakness of this argument is that the Tory turnout also rose.  The main argument in favour is that younger voters who are generally seen as most engaged in the online world, and least engaged with "traditional" techniques, saw their turnout go up by 21%
(c) Both the main Party Leaders are "marmite" politicians.  Theresa May was seen by some of her supporters as unassailable but also by others as robotic, locked into a hard Brexit strategy, wedded to a failed austerity project and so on.  Jeremy Corbyn attracts devotion among a section of the election, but his appeal is literally incomprehensible to others.  Perhaps the combination of devotion in some and repugnance in others combined to push up turnout.