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Friday, 31 October 2014

Brent Council in Private Eye's Rotten Boroughs

I see that Brent Council has featured in Private Eye's Rotten Boroughs.  In the bad old days of the 1980s and 1990s, this was a regular event.  When I got elected to the Council in 2006, I recall an officer proudly telling me that "Bent" Council had not featured in Rotten Boroughs for some years, so it is sad to see the circle turn.  The cause this week is the finding of racist bullying in an employment tribunal, although the curious relationships of members and officers are also mentioned.  This strikes me as more damaging to the Council's reputation than an article a little while ago that mentioned the curiosity around the disposal of the former Tokyngton Library.

UPDATE

Another anon comment on libraries, I see. In fact, I don't think Brent libraries ever featured in the Rotten Boroughs column, although it did occasionally appear in "Library News".  Of course, Private Eye doesn't do positive stories so we won' t be seeing many mentions in future of how satisfaction is rising and both visits and loans are up, or the numerous other improvements since 2011.

ANOTHER UPDATE

Really the world of anonymous comments is an odd one.  The comment from 17.19 on 1 November complains of the opening hours at Kilburn Library post transformation.  Actually, the Libraries Transformation Project ensured for the first time that all Brent Libraries were open seven days a week.  Previously, Kilburn Library had been open only five days a week. As for "security staff", I don't believe Kilburn Library has any, it is staffed by Library staff for all its opening hours, as it was when I was last there on Saturday.

It really is odd how people makes things up and then start believing them.  Perhaps, Kilburn Library deserves another post of its own to highlight the benefits of its refurbishment.  UPDATE: I have now done another post on Kilburn Library here

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Car Clubs and Air Quality

Car clubs are once again being put forward as a solution to the problem of London's growing population, increasing congestion and falling air quality.  There are already suggestions that technological change is making car clubs easier, and integrating them with oyster cards would be a sensible thing for any progressive London Mayor to look at.  By lowering costs for residents, car clubs also help the cost of living crisis which has been one of Ed Miliband's major themes.  Brent some time ago was catching up with this agenda, but subsequently progress has stalled.  Perhaps it is time to look again at the possibilities.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Paul Krugman and Derp

One of the pleasures of reading Paul Krugman is his invention of useful terms.  I have just come across "derp" that he has apparently used for some time.  I shall add it to incestuous amplification, zombie ideas and confidence fairy

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Failure and Accountability

Jonathan Portes hands in a damning judgement on the failure of Iain Duncan Smith at the DWP, but I am struck by the lack of accountability.  Here we  have a minister ignoring repeated warnings of inevitable failure, brushing aside clear evidence of totally unobtainable objectives, huge private sector failure and billions of taxpayers' money wasted.  Yet no one resigns, or even admits culpability.


The whole ship of state just goes yet further in unnavigable waters, and no one stops it.


At the same time ministers are pilloried for personal indiscretions, gaffes (which sometimes consist of telling the truth) and relatively minor misconduct.  Doesn't our whole political system have its priorities wrong?

Monday, 27 October 2014

Kilburn Literary Festival

Interested to read of a new Kilburn Literary Festival coming up.  It sounds like a good initiative, that could help the regeneration of Kilburn High Road.  I hope it survives, and that Brent and Camden Councils can find ways to support its development. 

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Council Buildings and Potential Clawback

I did a couple of posts about the former Preston Library building here and here.  As I explained, there are a number of problems with the hope of the Friends of Preston Library to simply take control of the building.  In my view, indeed, they are insurmountable.

One that I didn't mention is the importance of guaranteeing performance.  The days when Brent just gave people money and let them get on with it ending a long time ago, which given the potential for abuse is probably no bad thing.  The many organisations that get grants from Brent: Brent CAB, the Tricycle Theatre, all sorts of ward working schemes and many others are required to report on progress towards whatever the objectives of the grant are.

Essentially, you have to list your objectives, have some sort of reporting mechanism on whether you are achieving them, and a correction mechanism if you do not.

In the case of a building, I would expect this to be a clawback mechanism, where if the building ceases to be used for the stated purpose it returns to the ownership and control of the Council.  This is a long established principle of such arrangements, for example it applied to the old Carlyon Plant, the Bridge Park Sports Centre, Brent Museum and others.  I have remarked before that, despite their increasing ubiquity, there appears to be no agreed criteria for measuring the success of community managed libraries.  The closest I can find is this

Ignoring such issues does not make them go away.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Two British Museum Exhibitions

I heartily recommend the two exhibitions currently on at the British Museum.  Firstly their Ming exhibition, and also the exhibition on German history.  It is particularly nice to see something on German history that does not obsess over the Second World War to the exclusion of the rest of German culture. 

Friday, 24 October 2014

Waste Hierarchy and Landfill Diversion

By a somewhat circuitous route, I learn that the green waste charges are seen as possibly increasing recycling levels.  I think this unlikely.  Whatever the other merits of charging for garden waste _ and I can certainly understand the point about financial necessity _ I suspect that the new system is almost bound to lead to a reduction in measured recycling.

There are two reasons for this.  Firstly, waste that is composted (which is environmentally and financially more desirable than the Council collecting it) will not count towards a recycling target.  That is perhaps a comment on the importance of not allowing targets to overcome objectives since in that case lowering the recycling actually achieves the policy aims better.  The second is that the former Environment lead apparently expected the reduction in garden waste to be offset by an expansion in food waste collections. 

I think this reasoning is flawed.  I regretted at the time that the policy was not properly explained in the report before members or analysed by Scrutiny.  The lead member for environment at the time has now been replaced by the first ever Brent Executive member to be simply appointed without an internal Group election (a retrograde step in my view).  The previous member appear to believe in the article quoted above that only 60,000 households in Brent had a food waste collection.   In fact this has been untrue since 2012.  The food and garden waste collection that covered 60,000 households was in that year supplemented by a food waste collection to an extra 28,000 households.  This had some success, although there was a problem in take up in some areas such as Kilburn.  I understand that the Council is extending food waste collections to flats more, but the reason that this is only happening now because by definition those are the areas hardest to get to.  Again it is frustrating that the reasoning and analysis behind this policy has simply not been made public in the way it should have been. 

Another point is whether the recycling target is a bit out of date, and should be replaced by a landfill diversion target.  This accords well with waste hierarchy principles.  West London Waste Authority (WLWA) already leads on reducing wasteWLWA is now locked into a new procurement coming into force in 2016, which will eliminate almost all landfill from West London  waste disposal, so effectively Brent is already committed to this policy. 

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Progress at Harlesden Town Centre

Things have settled down a little following the switchover in traffic directions in Harlesden Town Centre.  I know that there are still some grumbles about loading, rubbish collections and confused travellers, but I would suggest waiting a bit longer for the system to bed down before condemning it.   Firstly, it is still very much under way.  The area in front of Harlesden Methodist Church is currently blocked off for works, and a good deal of pavement remains to be done.  I don't think it is really fair to judge the scheme until it is physically complete.

The loading arrangements, I expect shopkeepers will get in hand as they adjust to the new system.  Similarly, as people get more used to the location of new bus stops and so on, there will be less muddle about where to go.  I recall, the much more minor changes at the Wrottesley Road traffic lights I campaigned for took quite a while for people to get used to, but were generally welcomed eventually.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Scotland's Oil

The crash in the oil price shows how vulnerable an independent Scotland would have been if the Yessers had won the Indyref.  The sheer volatility of oil means that an independent Scotland heavily reliant on oil would find itself cutting spending dramatically in circumstances such as these.  Circumstances over which it would have not control.  That is before you worry about the longer term decline in marginal North Sea oilfields, and the effect of the "Dutch Effect" on exports when prices are high.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Asset of Community Value Status for the Former Preston Library

I was interested to see the report that a group is seeking Asset of Community Value (ACV) status for the former Preston Library.  This is the same group that previously announced they want to take the building over if it becomes vacant next year.  I blogged previously that there are extensive problems with the idea of this group taking over a taxpayer asset for a peppercorn rent, as they hope.  What surprises me is that making the building an asset of community value would make these problems worse not better.

Assets of Community Value status has two main effects.  The most important is that someone trying to sell or lease the building can be made to wait six months to allow community groups to see if they can find the funding to pay for it.  At the end of that period, the owner can either accept the bid, or sell to someone else.  The second is that the ACV status can be considered as a "material consideration" by planners considering a planning application.

Market Value?
The first of these conditions makes it basically impossible for the Council to simply transfer the building at a peppercorn rent as the Preston group hopes.  In fact, the Council as owner would be forced to put it up for any community group to make a bid.  In other words, ACV status effectively compels the Council to put it on the market.  If, say, a church were to express an interest the Council would be required to give it six months to raise the funding.  This was exactly the reason that the owner in the case of the former Kensal Rise Library could not simply lease the building to them prior to Planning permission.  It was precisely the ACV status that created the complication.

After six months it becomes more interesting.  A private owner could simply sell to who they liked at the price they liked, including a lower price if they wanted to.  The Council has a fiduciary duty to get best value for the taxpayer, as I explained here.  If it had a higher bid from another group, it might consider itself legally obliged to take it, disappointing the group that secured ACV status whilst seeking to take the building over for a peppercorn rent.

ACV and Planning
The Planning consequences of ACV status are slighter.  I suspect in both the Kensal Rise and The Queensbury cases, the campaigners involved sought it just as a way of making it harder for the owner to sell and/or develop the site.  That doesn't appear to be the aim in the Preston case.

ACV status would be a "material consideration" for planning, but that just means the Planners think about it.  They may not give it much weight.  Brent's existing policies resist loss of community space, and it was this existing policy that was given most weight in planning officer advice to the Committee in both the Kensal Rise and Queensbury cases.  In neither case, did the Council resist developing most of the site for housing.  The limits of using the planning system to block development were also exposed in the Barham Park case

I therefore find it hard to see the logic of why the campaigners to take over this building want it to have ACV status.

UPDATE

A comment has been added that this post does not give the whole picture. Could I ask the anonymous commentator to state what he thinks "could mislead"?

Monday, 20 October 2014

Physical and Other Kinds of Book Loans

A comment on this post asks about why I interested in loans outside physical libraries.  The primary reason is that a lot of the misunderstanding of Brent's Libraries Transformation Project came from the idea that cutting the number of libraries must mean a reduction in usage.  In fact, the opposite turned out to be the case. 

I think key to understanding why this is, is understanding that (1) at least in an urban authority like Brent, travelling to different libraries is actually quite easy (2) library activities such as book loans have become divorced (at least to some extent from actually physically visiting the libraries.

This is obvious when you consider a lot of online actitivities.  If you have a Brent library card you can now look books up in a catalogue, read periodicals, communicate with other library uers and boorrow ebooks without actually setting foot in a library.

However, my post centred on book loans, so lets look at those specifically.

Ebooks, a small but fast growing sector (94% in the last half year) can be totally divorced from a physical visit to a library, as the commentator recognises.

Home Library services were an area we chose to prioritise during the Transformation.  That was a choice based on protecting vulnerable people.  There is no statutory duty to do that. Bristol has been reported as considering closing that service altogether.  Brent went the opposite way, and has massively increased usage.  This is not only not linked to having physical libraries, but pushing resources towards maintaining buildings inevitably means cuts elsewhere, and cuts to the home library service would be one politically easier way to achieve them. 

Outreach Services: I have seen some very snooty comments about outreach services as no more than a "book swop".  In fact, they can be a very valued part of the service.  I think of Brent examples such as at Preston primary school, St Raphael's Childrens Centre or the outreach activities at Kilburn Library during its refurbishment.  Again, Brent chose to emphasise this service and saw usage shoot up as a consequence.  This was a choice that would probably not have happened had Brent chosen to pour its resources into buildings.

Online Renewals:  Online renewals I would accept have a relation to physical loans, although I think it is a fairly loose one.  Nonetheless, making online renewals as easy as possible is important to making book lending easier for the users, which I think should be a central aim for all services.

Phone Renewals: Again these are loosely related to physical loans from buildings, although I suspect they often cannibalise online renewals to some extent.

My overall point is that concentrating on buildings rather than services is the wrong set of priorities.  It is, however, the line that most authorities are taking as they look for budget cuts.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Willesden Green Library Centre and Brent Civic Centre

Yesterday's post about Willesden Green Library Centre reminds me that I meant to do something on its relation to Brent Civic Centre.  An aspect that hasn't come into the debate is that the two are related for emergency planning purposes. 

Were there to be some kind of freak accident making the usual parts of the Civic Centre unusable, there would need to be a Council office from which the Council could still operate its emergency roles.  This would have to be physically separate from the Civic Centre, in case the accident was something like a plane crashing on the Centre.  Willesden Library Centre (in the Council offices bit) can fulfil this role.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Willesden Green Library Centre Detailed Design

I see an opportunity to contribute to the detailed design of Willesden Library Centre has been advertised for 27 October.  I hope it won't be hijacked by people who are just trying to wreck the whole scheme, as it has in the past.  There is little rational point in continuing to try to drag down a project that is now so near to completion.  Willesden Library should help the regeneration of Willesden High Road, and the success of the Libraries Transformation Project, and it is time to accept that. 

Friday, 17 October 2014

Looking Beyond Physical Library Buildings

Just to re-emphasise the point I have made before, a large proportion (27.3%) of book loans in Brent are not actually from a physical building at all.  UPDATE: I have tried to answer the comment below in a further post here.  Here are the non-building loans for the half year of 2014.



And here is the table with the actual figures:


Loans As %
Home Library 13.7%
Outreach 34.4%
Online Renewal 37.6%
Phone Renewal 9.1%
Ebook 5.2%
Total 100.0%

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Social Justice and Libraries

Leon's Library blog has a characteristically thoughtful piece on social justice and libraries.  Essentially, it highlights the problems of potentially hollowing out the libraries service.  I think Brent's Libraries Transformation Project helped us to avoid this, but as the austerity regime continues into the distant future, it becomes more of a possibility.

At the moment, Brent Libraries provide a range of services _ Homework Clubs, English conversation groups, language classes, materials in different languages, the Six Book Challenge, training in useful skills like IT and so on.  I think it fair to say that Brent Libraries treat all this as a core part of what libraries do.  The temptation for budget makers will be to whittle away at these activities, especially as many of the users are less politically articulate than the better organised lobby groups. This will be all the more likely without a clear budget strategy

During the numerous conversations that I had with some of the campaigns during the library litigation, some of them were extraordinarily scornful of this kind of thing.  Suggestions were made that deprivation data should be ignored, libraries simply run for existing users.  One of the grounds of challenge to the Council decision was that we included Equalities as part of our assessment criteria of the various bids to run the former library buildings.  Some resented having such a criterion.  Other resented not so much the criterion as the idea that they might be expected to realise this would be a concern.  It is not hard to imagine such critics dismissing such activities as not really what libraries do. 

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Smoking in Brent Parks

Someone in Boris Johnson'd office thinks it smart to ban smoking in London parks.  In fact Boris Johnson only controls a small number of parks.  Most of them are under Borough control.  For example, Brent has about 85 parks ranging from huge ones like Fryent Country Park to pocket parks like Challenge Close or Tubbs Road.  The only public park in Brent not under Borough control is Queens Park, which is under the City of London.  So the real question is: what will each of the Boroughs do?

Charging for PCs in Public Libraries

Havering is the latest Borough to be threatening deep cuts to its library service, roughly half the staff in fact.  I was interested to see that one of their proposals is to introduce charging for PC use:

"A 50p charge for one hours use of a library computer is also proposed. The machines are used by members of the community to apply for jobs, and by residents who do not have computers at home. Cllr Wallace said: “50p for an hour, what’s a fizzy drink price? It’s the same price as a fizzy drink.”"

If I am right about the changes in the statutory definition of library services, this may be unlawful.  Just as it is illegal to charge for books, if the PC use becomes part of the statutory service (as I think the Lincolnshire judgement says), I think it may be unlawful to charge for PCs.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Eric Pickles Meddling Again

The Monday Executive had a document about parking enforcement.  Eric Pickles has been busy inventing ways to make this more difficult (currently out to consultation).  I have criticised Pickles before, for having abandoned any pretence to allowing local decision making.  Just as Michael Gove apparently believed that he was the best person to run every school in the country, and caused chaos as a result, Pickles seems to wreck local government. 

Monday, 13 October 2014

Displacement Activity and the Brent Budget

Today's Executive considers in general terms the severe cuts that face the Council over the next three years, a further £57 million.  I am concerned that for the past two years, Brent has been drifting along, relaying on the savings from projects under way already.  Indeed, one can argue that mismanagement in the HR function has been wantonly making the financial situation worse.  I raised for some time the burgeoning spending in this area, but there appears to be a refusal to address the issue.  Whereas central government has caused these problems, local authorities are being forced to clear them up.  I worry that rather than grapple with these complexities, the Council is ignoring them and engaging in the displacement activity of a new Borough Plan. 

UPDATE

Actually I thought the drift started before I left the Executive in 2013.  A more likely date would be 2012.  It is now up to the current councillors and Executive to come up with a strategy.  I have a much easier time observing from outside and commenting.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Harlesden Town Centre Works Comes to a Climax

Harlesden Town Centre is about to enter its most difficult phase next week, as the traffic goes two way and work shifts to the area in front of Harlesden Town Centre.  The scheme dates back a lot longer than the beginning of the actual work, so it is good to see it finally getting to the end.

The thinking behind it is driven by pedestrianisation.  Pedestrians are now at the top of Brent's road user hierarchy, which is now embedded in Brent's policy as a result of the passing of the Placemaking Guide.  It sits well with the trend in modern High Streets towards being places to be rather than just collections of shops.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Housing Lunacy

Since the Tory Conference, ministers have been kind enough just how utterly bonkers they really are _ with unpaid tax cuts, eternal austerity, abolition of human rights as defined by eminent left wingers David Maxwell-Fyfe and Sir Winston Churchill and so on _ but it is surely housing where the Tory delusion have been seen in their true unrestrained lunacy.  As well as entering the Help to Buy sub prime lending market that was such a success in the USA, they now appear to be proposing the abolition of government grants in our already dysfunctional housing market.  Red Brick goes into greater detail

Friday, 10 October 2014

Free School in NW2/NW10

I am always surprising about which issues attract attention and which do not.  A few days ago, I pointed out that plans were afoot in Brent for a new free school.  Although free schools are with good reason controversial, this seems to have attracted little attention.  This is obviously suited to the government's agenda, which tries to refuse even basic information, but not that of anyone who dislikes the fragmentation of education in England. 

Thanks to the way Michael Gove and Sarah Teather designed the free school legislation, it is much hard to object to a free school through the Planning system than it would be normally.  However, especially if the owner of the site can be identified, it would be possible to bring pressure either not to sell the site (as happened when Michaela was trying to move into the old Brent Town Hall), or to impose conditions in the way that Brent Council had agreed at a previous Executive, but ignored with the Copland School conversion.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The Queensbury and Affordable Housing

I have been told that Planning officers at Brent have agreed a deal with Fairview Homes on affordable housing in The Queensbury application that was refused earlier in the year.  This would have the effect of removing affordable housing as a reason for refusal in the forthcoming appeal by Fairview.  I can understand why this may sound like a bad idea to people, but I suspect it actually makes the Council's case stronger.

The Council was advised by Fairview, its own officers and an independent consultant that the amount of affordable housing in the original application was a reasonably commercially viable amount.  This analysis was not challenged by any evidence in the meeting.  Retaining it as a reason for refusal, acually weakens the Council's case rather than strengthens it.

The objection to the sheer size of the proposal in the Mapesbury Conservation Area still seems to me a very strong grounds for refusal, and more likely to succeed with the Planning Inspector if it is on its own.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Willesden Social Club Site

Passing by the former Willesden Social Club site a few days ago, I noticed it has a mechanical digger on it.  Hopefully this means it will finally begin the development that was given planning permission some time ago.

Back to Local Welfare Assistance

I have been concerned about local welfare assistance schemes for some time.  After a brief retreat, central government looks as if it is stepping up to abolish funding completely, which means most authorities will either do away with the schemes or severely restrict them.  That will hit the very poorest the most, at the same time that David Cameron is announcing entirely unfunded tax cuts

Monday, 6 October 2014

Brent Library Figures by Library

I thought I would add a post about Brent Library figures by Library for the half year up to the end of September 2014.  The visits look like this:



You can see that Wembley Library has made an enormous difference.  When the new Willesden Library opens next year, Wembley will take a less disproportionate share of visits, but for the moment it accounts for more than half.

Loans, on the other hand, are more evenly spread across the libraries.  Brear in mind that a large proportion of Brent library loans come from outside physical libraries altogether.  They look like this:





UPDATE

The comment below repeats a comment made a number of times before by the same person.  Whilst I appreciate leaving aname, endlessly repeating the same points in comments to different posts, is just tedious.  I will be happy to publish data on comparisons when CIPFA choose to publish them, which I suspect will not be for some time.  In the meantime, no well informed person doubts that both visits and loans are going down in most authorities in England and Wales.  As Brent's figures are going up, that means that Brent is improving its relative position.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Brent Libraries Figures for the Half Year up to September

The data on library visits and issues for Brent Libraries in the half year up to the end of September is nout out, and (with apologies for formatting) looks like this:



 Loans  % Change
2012/13                                              483,083
2013/14                                              485,949 0.6%
2014/15                                              522,051 7.4%




 Visits  % Change
2012/13                                              683,333
2013/14                                              751,853 10%
2014/15                                          1,067,767 42%

Both loans and visits show significant growth, which confirms the most recent full year data, here
The 42% growth in visits is largely driven by Wembley Library, which is really coming into its own. I suspect that the next CIPFA comparison will show it as one of the most popular libraries in London when it next comes out. However, the 7.4% rise in book loans cheers me more as hitherto loan figures were not as good as I hoped despite our strategy ring fencing the book fund for Brent.

UPDATE

Firstly, I am glad to see these figures mentioned on Public Libraries News, but it is sad to see a canard that I thought had been laid to rest.  This is the old, entirely false charge, that the visit numbers for Willesden Green Library included people who did not visit the library.  This is simply factually wrong, and has been denied many times, but is endlessly repeated by "library campaigners" who seem intent on just denigrating everything to do with Brent libraries.  Similarly, the Wembley Library figures only include people who enter the library.  What is true is that a "visit" to Wembley Library (or any other public library) might be the whole day, or for a couple of minutes.  The machines similar measure people coming in, they don't track what they are actually doing.    



Saturday, 4 October 2014

Abuses at Brent Council

I notice that in a debate on Martin Francis blog some of the commentators appear to be confusing his position and mine.  My original post is here, and Martin has paraphrased it accurately, whilst adding his own view.  Hence the understandable confusion.

My view is that Brent Council had strong rules and procedures before 2012, including appropriate relationships between members and officers.  These were built up over many years since the nadir of the Tory administration in the 1990s, as explained here.  Since 2012, there has been a steady decline in the application of appropriate standards, leading to a situation where accusations of various forms of abuse, including racism and misuse of public money, are flying about.  This is, in my view, the result of the past couple of years where patronage and irrational decision making have increased, scrutiny has declined, and certain individuals appear to have been allowed to believe that they enjoy impunity from accountability.

My view is that it is up to elected councillors to step in and sort this out, whether the abuses are being committed by overmighty officers or whether they are being committed by elected members who are out of control (or indeed whether they are being influenced by people who fit in neither category). Given the composition of Brent Council, that primarily means the Labour Group.

The debate on Martin's blog can be found here

Liberal Democrat Collapse across London

On thursday I went out to door knock for Haringey's newest Labour councillor, who won the Wood Green by election handsomely.  It follows an Ashcroft poll suggesting that Catherine West is making deep inroads in the Liberal Democrat vote in Hornsey and Wood Green.  The Liberal Democrats are seeing similar problems in Bermondsey and in Sutton.  Brent Central seems to be such a write off that Ashcroft hasn't even bothered to poll it, since he only does marginals. 

I wonder what on earth the Liberal Democrats will be saying to each other at their Conference?

Friday, 3 October 2014

Undemocratic Debate

Headoflegal has an extensive takedown of the Tories' recent proposals on human rights.  It is merely the latest in a string of political debates where the substance of the issue is ignored and a number of buzzwords regurgitated.  This of phoney "debate" is killing our democracy.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Glaring Questions on Brent Council's Human Resources

I mentioned some of the failings of Brent's human resources yesterday.  Understandably there has been a lot of focus on accusations of racism and bulling, but I think the Human Resources function at Brent Council has a number of problems that need examination by rather more rigorous examiners than the "internal review" apparently set up.  The questions I have in mind are:

1) The obvious concerns about issues to do with bullying, intimidation and possible misuse of funds.
2) The continued appointment of an "interim" Chief Executive whose term appears to be set to extend for more than two years.  During this time other London Boroughs (eg Barnet) have seen seen Chief Executives go and be replaced.  Lambeth Council has advertised recently.  Why is Brent unable to perform this basic function?
3) The rising use of interim staff, which is an enormous cost to the taxpayer, and whether this reflects an underlying weakness in the structure of the organisation.
4) Whether anyone is getting any benefit from the One Oracle project.  One of the main aims of this was supposed to be the improvement in human resources information, which should lead to genuine efficiency savings as well as potentially improving the Council in terms of diversity and so on.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Racist Bullying at Brent Council

Following an Employment Tribunal that found Brent Council had tolerated racist bullying, there has rightly been a lot of disquiet.  The concerns are highly unlikely to be met by any internal review into the issue, as such a review is far to close to the people alleged to be involved to have any credibility.

What saddens me most about this is that Brent has over many years made real efforts to tackle equality issues, and this looks like an organisation losing those hard fought gains through neglect and perhaps something worse.

During the Tory administration of the 1990s, Brent Council abolished its human resources function altogether _ a decision almost unbelievably antediluvian.  The result was that it had no process for dealing with problems between managers and staff, and got involved in a number of scandals.  Many of these had a racial element, and the Council repeatedly found itself on receiving end of adverse employment tribunal verdicts highlighting problems with racism.  This got so bad that there was a specific intervention by the Commission for Racial Equality (forerunner of the CEHR).  Improvements were made under Paul Daisley's leadership of the Council, and the number of tribunal cases started to fall.  This also ran parallel with other improvements to the quality of governance, for instance in planning.

By 2010, Brent had a much healthier reputation.  It was able to undertake two waves of major restructuring without a major increase in adverse tribunal cases.  Given the restructuring involved the removal of about a quarter of the workforce, I think that remarkable.

When Brent was challenged over the Libraries Judicial Review, Equalities were one of the main grounds cited.  I am sure the opposing side thought they would manage to get the Council over somethiong equality related, and they did indeed pick over every imaginable objection.  That the Council came through such a rigorous examination with a judgement entirely in its favour is testament to how seriously equalities in Brent Council were treated. 

Since then I get an impression of decline.  A lot of this follows on from the removal of Gareth Daniel as Chief Executive.  There has never been any public explanation of why this was done, but I suspect part of it was because Gareth had objected vigorously to a particular councillor bullying staff.  The councillor bore him a grudge as a result and pursued a vendetta against him.

Once you start allowing this kind of thing without objection, you begin to create a culture where it is acceptable, and people cease even to object to bullying and simply keep their heads down.  That is a tragic situation not just for the victims but also the organisation as a whole.