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Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Brent Increases Ward Working Budgets

On Monday, Brent Council decided to increase ward working budgets from 20,000 to 40,000 pounds.  This was moved as a late amendment at the actual meeting.

Both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats opposed the move.  I suspect that, as with recycling, Cllr Paul Lorber is once again leading his party down a dead end.  Whereas the Tories opposition is, I think, populist opportunism, Cllr Lorber's hostilitity to ward working is longstanding and heartfelt.

When he was in opposition before 2006, he would routinely call for the entire ward working scheme to be scrapped.  On attaining office, he was unable to fulfill this ambition as the other two parties opposed him, but he did scale back each ward's budget from 30k to 20k.  The budget decision the other night now puts each ward's budget up to 40k.

As far as I can see, Cllr Paul Lorber simply does not understand the logic of the policy, which is that frontline councillors will only be taken seriously if they can bring some sort of budget, however small, to bear on a problem in their wards.  He claimed that ward working had been unsuccessful in his own ward of Sudbury.  If so, I am inclined to attribute its lack of success to him.  Where councillors actually engage with the ward working agenda, it has been used to back all sorts of useful community projects.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

SackBoris2012.com

One of the joys of an upcoming election is a proliferation of online campaigning.  A new web site has been dedicated to London Mayor Boris Johnson.  Its political angle is not hard to discern.

I particularly liked the "Turing Test" feature.

What are Fightback doing?

This photo of the Fightback group outside Brent Town Hall makes them look more lively than they actually were.  I still haven't heard from them what they mean by "not lie down".  Set an illegal budget?

UPDATE:

Responding to the comments below, there has been a long standing problem with local government in the UK that it is financially dependent on central government.  There fore it has limited room for manoeuvre.  the idea that it can just stop central government policies is just pie in the sky, but I do think having a Labour Council makes us significantly different from the previous Tory administration.  For example the Tories and Liberal Democrats have explicitly opposed our new recycling system, failed to push for Fairtrade status, andshowed no interest in the carbon emissions issue.

Brent Council Budget Passed

Last night's budget setting meeting turned out to be a less charged event than last year.  Cllr Ann John gave the best speech, and (I thought) Cllr Suresh Kansagra the worst.  I was on the Planning Committe with Suresh for some time, but I am afraid he let his party down last night.

Cllr Paul Lorber attempted to make a number of specious amendments.  Part of his argument depended on taking money from ward working, which we instead voted to increase as a budget.  I suspect Cllr Lorber's long standing dislike of ward working is contrary to the position of many of his colleagues.  Nonetheless, they voted for his proposals.  He also made yet another proposal on libraries.  Both these subjects probably deserve their own post.

I was struck at how demoralised both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats seemed to be.  Cllr James Allee, the Liberal Democrat who chairs the Budget Scrutiny panel, chose not to attend and did not offer apologies.  This despite him having a specific slot in the budget debate.  One would have thought he might at least have arranged someone else to speak on his behalf.  However, even some of the normally vocal Liberal Democrat councillors who did make it to the meeting chose not to speak.  They seem really to have had the stuffing knocked out of them. 

Monday, 27 February 2012

Council Budget

Brent Council will be setting its budget tonight.  I suspect that, as last year, the Liberal Democrats and Tories will not offer a serious alternative but simply a set of eye catching amendments.  But we shall see.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

South Kilburn Regeneration Proceeding

Work is forging ahead on the redevelopment of South Kilburn after years of drift and delay.  The next area to be brought forward is the space to the south of Queens Park station (where the 187 bus stops).  Details can be found here.  McDonald House is finished.  The Carlton Vale roundabout, George House, Swift House and Merla Court are underway.  Planning permission has been granted for the Cambridge Avenue development, as well as Woods, Bond and Hicks Bolton Houses. This is an impressive amount of progress at a time when resources are under such pressure.  Eventually, the hge bison blocks that are the least loved aspect of South Kilburn will be demolished.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Housing Disaster

The Guardian report on the growing scale of London's housing problem doesn't really convey the extent of the problem.  Cuts in housing benefit from last year, and the grossly overinflated prices of housing in London will force Councils to move people many miles from their communities.  The areas that they will be forced to go to are likely to be poorer and have fewer employment opportunities.  Thus, the Tory government is creating social upheaval and undermining the economy as a whole.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Dollis Hill House Replacement

The demolition of Dollis Hill House has now been completed.  Rather than just grass it over, we decided to make a feature of some of the remains to enhance the northern part of Gladstone Park.  The drawings and some artist impressions of the feature can be seen here.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Willesden Green Library Redevelopment

I thought it might be good to highlight some of the things going on around Willesden Town Centre.  Details of the consultation on the redevelopment of Willesden Green Library Centre can be found here.  There is also a Brent Council page on the project here.  Incidentally, the Library redevelopment ties in well with the regeneration work on Willesden Town Centre as a whole.  There is another web site covering Windows on Willesden here.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Community Project Funding

Brent Council is looking for interested bidders to fund community projects.  Details can be found here.  The number of bids put in generally exceeds the amount of money available, but hopefully many organisations will still be able to beenfit.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Temporary Libraries

I notice that the Liberal Democrats are now complaining that Ealing Road library is being refurbished without a temporary library being set up during this period.  In fact this is merely a continuation of existing policy.  Thus, when the last Tory led administration closed Barham Library for three months, no extra temporary provision was made.  Brent Council has only provided temporary library services during long construction periods (as with Harlesden Library).

Monday, 20 February 2012

Michael Gove in Another Pickle

Michael Gove is trying to exempt schools from their duties under the Equality Act by saying it does not apply to the curriculum.  My understanding is that the Equality Act applies to "public authorities" in the exercise of their functions.  I would have thought a school funded by taxpayers' money would be covered by that definition.  I wonder what Sarah Teather thinks?

Sunday, 19 February 2012

DCMS Response on Brent Libraries

I am surprised that the DCMS response to the Brent litigants has not attracted more publicity.  For the past year all sorts of campaign groups up and down the country have called on the Secretary of State to intervene.  Until now the department was silent, prompting at least one group to send a complaint.  The Brent letter gives the first indication that I know of on the Department's reasons for not intervening.

There are two main grounds.  Firstly, Brent Council did a thorough and rigorous assessment of needs in making its decision.  Secondly, the Brent Strategy is not merely a finance driven programme of cuts, but a genuine transformation project, which will see a number of improvements.  These improvements have not had the attention they deserve, but include:
  • Seven day opening at all Brent libraries
  • Improved levels of bookstock in all Brent libraries
  • An improved outreach service
  • Substantial investment in all Brent's library buildings.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Brent Libraries Comprehensive and Efficient

I blogged before that two days after they told me that they were extremely reluctant to engage in litigation, I found that Friends of Kensal Rise Library had sent in a legal threat to the Secretary of State.  The threatened action was about non-determination of whether Brent was following its duty to have a "comprehensive and efficient" service.

The SoS has now responded.  He has now determined that Brent's library service is indeed comprehensive and efficient.  I find it hard to imagine what other result the litigants expected.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Astro Turfing

Adam Bienkov has an interesting piece on astro-turfing and political campaigns here.  As he says, this is a long established practice, but becoming much more sophisticated.

January Recycling at Brent Council

The recycling figure for Brent in January 2012 was 43%, compared to only 23% in January last year.  I see this as another confirmation that our new system is on the right track.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Library Legalities

Anyone wondering about what is happening next on Brent's Libraries TYransformation Project?  The answer is we are trying to get clarification from All Souls College about various legal issues.  In the meantime, the stock is being redistributed around our six libraries.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Decorum

Reflecting on the last Brent Executive, I am struck at how uncivil meetings can often become.  I first noticed this tendency at a Planning meeting over the Tenterden MUGA a couple of years ago.  That meeting shared two striking characteristics with the Willesden Library protesters on Monday.  Firstly, there was a lot of shouting.  It appears that some people think the best way to make a case is raw aggression.  Secondly, there was little attention to what was actually on the agenda.  In the Tenterden case, the MUGA was agreed in principle, the application was merely about the details; nonetheless, a crowd of about forty people turned up to shout the committee about their opposition to the whole scheme.  Similarly, the several speakers who denounced the Willesden Library Development ignored the actual subject of the call in _ the interim library arrangements _ and spoke instead about things like the retail offer, which are surely better covered in the pre-application consultation.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Big Society Problems

The Guardian reports on some of the problems with local authorities assessing "Big Society" offers.  On the whole, it underestimates the extent of the problems, especially in today's increasingly litigious climate. 

Particularly on procurement, the piece does not give the full flavour.  Challenging the award of contracts has become increasingly common.  This is helped by a change in practice.  Previously, a successful challenge would simply lead to a rerun of the tender.  Now you can claim compensation for the profits you would have made.  There are plausible rumours that companies are building a few successful challenges into their business model.  Of course, that tends to benefit major players who can afford smart lawyers.  The more local, volunteer type groups often have little expertise in putting bids together.  It is hard for officers to help them because (a) resources are stretched (b) Too much help to one group can itself breach procurement regulations.

Other problems the article does not cover include planning service provision.  The availability of volunteers does not necessarily match the areas of need.  Given that there are virtually bound to be hidden costs in any scheme in terms of management, all kinds of business support and so on, that is likely to lead to services being planned according to who shouts the loudest rather than on a rational basis.

The other big omission is "moral hazard".  If the service is much valued, government is always likely to step in if a group fails.  If you take Southern Cross, it would hardly be politically possible for the government to leave the people in Southern Cross homes to just fend for themselves.  Hence the private sector could take as many risks as they liked knowing that the taxpayer would pick up the pieces.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Brent Executive Tonight

I suspect that the Brent Council Executive this evening will be lenghty.  As well as the budget, we have an item on Willesden Green Library Centre and Charteris Sports Centre.  There are also a lot of other items that will probably attract less attention, but are extremely important (like the report on helping victims of domestic violence).

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Meetings at Willesden Library Centre

Martin Francis appears to have started a rumour that there were no community meeting spaces in the plans for a redeveloped Willesden Library Centre.  In fact there are three.  The largest has a capacity of about 100.  the outrage is therefore misplaced.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

The Online Offer in Brent Libraries

One of the main planks of Brent's Libraries Transformation Project is a determination to improve the online offer.  In this day and age any effective service provider has to have an integrated digital approach.

Brent's online library services had been identified in the research we did as being fairly pedestrian.  Looking at this example from New Zealand, one can see why.  The New Zealand example looks so much more approachable and easy to use than our rather staid offer.

Friday, 10 February 2012

By Elections in Brent

There will be a by election in Barnhill on 3 May, following Judy Beckman's resignation as a councillor.  Judy is a real loss to the Council, but she has decided that she wants to be nearer her family.  The reason for leaving the election until 3 May is that having it on the same day as the GLA elections minimises cost.  A Council by election costs between 20 and 25 thousand pounds.  Holding it on the same day as another election removes much of the cost as the staff and polling stations would have to be available anyway.

The Liberal Democrats are rumopoured to be timing one election in Dollis Hill for late March, and another (in Dudden Hill) for July.  This maximises the cost to the Council, but I assume they hope to do better on a lower turnout.

Winter Recycling Collections

There may be some late or missed bin collections today as the trucks started later than usual due to the bad weather.  Spare a thought for the street gritters, who were griting up to 4am whilst the rest of us were asleep.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

ARTE in Harlesden Library

Just finished doing an interview with ARTE in Harlesden Library.  The end of the litigation against our April decision does not seem to have dampened the extraordinary media interest much.

Archives Open Day in Brent

Brent Archives service are organising a number of events on 15 February.  The proposed rebuild of Willesden Library Centre will mean that the Musuem and archive service will develop an outreach programme during the construction period.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Street Gritting and Cold Weather

The Bruegal like landscapes of the past few days have melted away, and my impression is that street gritting and other services continued fairly well.  Elsewhere, it is suggested that this was true nationally.  It is extremely easy for these things to go wrong, so I am glad that the past year's preperations have paid off.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

More Library Litigation

At my surgery on Saturday, a number of leading light in the Friends of Kensal Rise Library came along and told me how they had always been reluctant to engage in litigation.  Yesterday, I learnt that the group has sent pre-action correspondence to the Secretary of State over his alleged failure to exercise his powers to ensure a comprehensive and efficient library service.  I am not sure where they believe that will get them, but it means that I will not be able to blog as freely as I hoped on Sunday.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Treetops Nursery

The report on Treetops nursery is now published.  I think two things are worth noting about it.  Both have come out of responses made to the consultation.  Firstly, the date of closure has been pushed back to July, causing less disruption for children.  Secondly, the bid for a Community Interest Company to take over part of the building is recommended to be dealt with in a two stage process.  The idea of the CIC running daycare places as part of Brent Council's service offer is recommended for rejection.  However, it is still open to the CIC to rent space in the building without the Council seeking to control their operations, but merely on a tenant/landlord basis. Convoluted, but potentially offering the CIC what it would like.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Brent Libraries Strategy

The end of the legal challenge means that it is easier for me to comment on the Libraries Transformation Project than it has been previously, so I will probably be doing a lot more posts on the subject.

Essentially, the huge scale of the government cuts _ more than £100 million over four years _ meant that we had to examine all areas of Council expenditure.  It was never realistic to imagine that the library service would not be affected, and there are also positive things that we wanted to do with the service.  The options available to local authorities were basically two.

One is the route that we took.  We decided to concentrate on library services from a smaller number of high quality buildings.  We decided that "high quality" meant in High Street locations with good public transport access and preferably co-located with other partners.  Harlesden Library, where the upper part is shared with BACES, is a good example.  This means that Brent Library service concentrates on improving the quality of its provision _ taking advantage of technological advances, working better with partners in outreach, marketing the service to non-users more effectively, organising more events in libraries.  By having all our libraries open seven days a week, we also have a more uniform standard across the Borough, allowing users a more comprehensive service.

The alternative, which many other authorities have chosen, is one of further decline.  Politically, this would be much easier.  Closing a building is much more obvious than cutting opening, not buying bookstock, not holding events, not having an outreach service and so on.  This basically means reducing quality of service for the sake of maintaining a shell of libraries without much in them.  What you might call Potemkin libraries.  Ultimately, I believe this would lead to lower and lower usage, and declining public support for the principle of a library service and the public sector in general (quitte possibly what the Tory government wants).

The test will be how Brent's library services will look in 2014/15.  Will I be proved right in expecting Brent's libraries to have more visiters and more book loans by then?

Brent Council Wins Legal Challenge

As the BBC has reported, the Supreme Court declined to hear the library litigants appeal on Friday.  This is the final confirmation that the decision Brent Council took back on 11 April was lawful, and clears the way for us to fully implement our libraries strategy.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Economic Debacle

Paul Krugman lists the full extent of the Tory government's economic mismanagement here.  Of course, none of this would have been possible without Nick Clegg's support.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Willesden Library Criticisms

I gather that the Call In Committee on Wednesday had a lot of public attention.  I suspect a lot of this was attracted to a backdoor way of overturning the decision in April about the Libraries Transformation Project, which is really a totally separate issue.  There are three other detailed issues that should be addressed.

1) The survival of the bookshop.  Although under no obiligation, the Council is trying to help find alternative premises for the Willesden Bookshop in the same area.  As this involve a one off move, I think it would be more likely to protect the Bookshop's commercial viability than the suggested temporary move followed by a move back into what would be a much more expensive retail space at the rebuilt library.

2) The status of the locally listed building at the front.  "Locally listed" means that Brent Council put this building on a register as a building of conservation importance.  It does not convey the same level of protection as a national listed building such as Dollis Hill House, which could only be demolished once the Secretary of State had given permission.  The reason that the old building would need to be removed to make any rebuild project viable is to do with the housing which funds the project.  Leving the old building in place would push the library centre back into the car park area, reducing the space for housing.  Since the funding for the project comes from the sale of housing, that would effectively make the project unviable.  Thus, the Planning Committee will have to consider whether the conservation status of the old building outweighs the value of the project as a whole.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Adele Parks at Harlesden Library

I greatly enjoyed the Adele Parks event at Harlesden Library yesterday, which was attended by more than one hundred people.  These are the kind of events we can have more of as the Libraries Transformation Project starts to be implemented.  It is a pity that the Library litigants tried to use it to generate more negative publicity for Brent Council's library service, but hopefully I got that across in my interview on BBC London Radio here.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Unfair Government Cuts

Patrick Butler confirms that the Tory government's cuts hit Labour run and poorer areas much more savagely than richer, Tory run areas.  No surprise there.

Shared Surfaces

Rather late in the day, Simon Jenkins has woken up to the concept of shared surfaces.  However, I support the tone of the article which accurately describes the concepts embedded in both the Brent Placemaking Guide and the Harlesden Town Centre redesign.