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Sunday, 30 November 2014

Paul Krugman Optimism on the Economy

Paul Krugman has a tiny glimmer of optimism that austerity is finally being being eased out of the economic debate.  I am sorry to say that I haven't noticed that in the UK, where George Osborne seems unfazed by his spectacular wrongness on every subject.  I suspect that this is because George Osborne does not care about the economic consequences of his policy so long as the political policies are holding good.  Given the scale of the Conservative government's mismanagement, one might have expected their political state to be much worse than it is, so Labour will have to work out a way to connect the suffering people have felt with the decisions that David Cameron and Nick Clegg made.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Reducing Betting in High Streets

The sheer number of authorities demanding limits to betting (especially Fixed Odds Betting Terminals) shows how widespread the problem is.  The Tories have previously been lukewarm on this subject, despite evidence of the damage done.  Lets hope that the message is finally getting through.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Doorknocking with Tulip Siddiq

Out door knocking with Tulip Siddiq this afternoon, and going to a Brent & Harrow Co-operative meeting this evening.  Just one heady excitement after another.  Whenever I go out in Hampstead & Kilburn, I never seem to find any signs of the other parties, I wonder where they have got to?

Jeremy Hunt

Jeremy Hunt has chosen to illustrate the parlous state of the NHS with his own family.  It is difficult to know where to start with how bad this is.  He is actively encouraging the overload of A&E.  He is encouraging reliance on the most expensive form of primary care instead of following the general advice on health and social care of encouraging prevention and early intervention.  He fails to accept responsibility for cutting GP provision which has contributed to the problems.  He is accused of trying to suppress information about winter pressures on the NHS. 

When he was Culture Secretary, I speculated he would soon go.  This was based on the sheer incompetence of a minister who didn't even know what "quasi judicial" meant when he was making decisions about Murdoch's takeovers.  However, I failed to take into account that in the Conservative government we now have incompetence is no barrier to office.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Brent Museum Strategy Knocked Back

I see form the Brent Council Forward Plan that the Brent Museum strategy has been knocked back to January, having originally been proposed for November.  This seems a little odd as I had thought it was ready a long time ago.  I notice the library stock contract has also been pushed back.  Given the financial state of the Council, it would not surprise me if a significant budget cut were being planned for the books budget, which would be a great pity as maintaining the book fund was a key part of Libraries Transformation Project. 

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Brent Council Budget Drifts

I am still getting a sense that Brent Council is no closer to a real long term plan for its finances than it was a year ago.  Recent moves like the proposed abolition of the Environment Department strike me as just the crudest of finance driven cuts, and the continuing ignoring of human resources failures hints at an organisation in serious trouble.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Limited Library Budgets

In a recent post, Public Libraries News pointed out that some Council are sacrificing jobs in the library service for buildings and books.  Put as directly as that it sounds pretty brutal, but in fact that has long been the choice as I have pointed out before.  In Brent, this was made clear as early as the first consultation meeting on 1 December 2010, when the audience was told an equivalent through shorter opening times (i.e. fewer staff) would require a 40% reduction across the border.  For example, instead of extensive refurbishment and opening seven days a week, Kilburn Library would have remained with its ongoing problems and opening only three days a week.

A similar logic applies to other Council budgets, and seems so obvious that I find it hard to see why people don't get it.

Brent Council, in a document not yet agreed (or possibly even read) by councillors is proposing further cuts to the libraries budget.  At the same time some campaigners seem to think they can set up private libraries and rely on the Council for some sort of funding and support.  If that were to happen, that would entail a draining away of resources from the Council's own library service in resources and quite possibly management time.  In other words, a reversal of the current successful approach and the switch by a Labour Council to a rather strange form of privatisation with no agreed monitoring of the quality of service. 

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Brent Civic Centre Success

I am glad to see that Brent Civic Centre has been given another award.  More important are the numerous benefits to Brent, including of course Wembley Library.  

Saturday, 22 November 2014

The Importance of Forward Planning

I see Martin Francis is taking Brent Council to task for putting Stonebridge Adventure Playground on its Forward Plan and then off again.  He concentrates on the suggestion that a report on a decision is being advertised as being taken before the consultation will have finished, which would suggest the consultation is something of a sham and that the Council is disregarding its own procedures.  Both of these could potentially lead to legal action.

The Council has a statutory duty to put items on the Forward Plan at least three months before decision.  Brent's own Constitution certainly used to demand a slightly long period of four months, although I am not sure if this has changed.  Violation of such a rule could be a ground of legal challenge, as of course could the suggestion that the Council's miond was made up prior to the decision. 

Friday, 21 November 2014

Sunderland Library Success

Sunderland is reported to consider its libraries service a success despite widespread closures.  As in Brent, Sunderland closed nine buildings without going down the community managed libraries route.  Frustratingly, I can't find a link to the original scrutiny report so details are short.

Sunderland's main measurement of success appears to be book loans, which (as in Brent) have gone up. Like Brent, they seem to have greatly expanded outreach services.  Some of the press reports seem to suggest that some residents actually find outreach easier.  However, there is less mention of ebooks, improved online service or new buildings than in Brent. 

It would be good to find more detail to see what the differences between Brent and Sunderland might be. 

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Local Government Failures and Eric Pickles

The National Audit Office has highlighted the financial weakness of many local authorities, and the DCLG's almost incredible lack of preparation for the collapse of local government functions.  The scale of government cuts, and their politically motivated concentration in the areas of greatest need, make collapse in at least some areas inevitable.  As with failing schools, once a local authority gets past a certain point putting it back together is likely to far harder than saving a going concern. 

Eric Pickles seems to have made no effort to prepare for this, just waiting for things to fall apart.  When the crisis hits I suspect his previous tactic of simply blaming the local council won't work and people will be blaming the failures of his own department (who I dare say will be as overwhelmed as the Education Department in handling failing free schools. 

Sadly, it will be the people in the relevant areas who will suffer the consequences.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Planning Permission for the Former Cricklewood Library

I understand from Cllr Lia Colacicco that a satisfactory development has been given planning permission at the former Cricklewood Library.  I am glad that this has finally got through, although it seems to have taken a long time.  Hopefully, the new development will add to the animation at the southern end of Gladstone Park.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Louis Wain Cat in Willesden

Well done to the Willesden Town Team for installing a Louis Wain style cat outside Willesden Green station.  Louis Wain lived just round the corner on Brondesbury Park.  The artist who managed the project, Debra Collis, is the same that managed the very successful mosaic in Furness Pocket Park

St Margaret of Scotland

I was looking at a Clerk of Oxenford's take on St Margaret of Scotland the other day.  If you haven't consulted this blog, it has some fascinating pieces on medieval history.  St Margaret's mixture of Continental, English and Scottish connections might give the more simplistic Indyref campaigners some food for thought in their interpretation of Scots history. 

Monday, 17 November 2014

Brent Council and Public Health

Last Monday, Brent Council Cabinet considered a report on public health in Brent.  It was a disappointing read.  It dutifully goes through various facts and figures about public health and the good work being done, but there is little sense of an organisation grasping new opportunities. 

I think this is a great disappointment as public health is an area that has come back to local government with a ringfenced budget and there should be plenty of opportunities to rethink public health delivery in terms of synergies with other local government functions.  Brent has developed strategies in food growing, promotion of sports, regulation of unwelcome activities such as shisha or fast food that should have numerous implications for health.  An imaginative approach should be able to find new ways of tackling thesae issues that the NHS or the Council alone have not previously attempted.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Local Government Perspective

I have been reading a book recently on Edinburgh history called Capital of the Mind.  It cites a conversation of the many times Lord Provost of Edinburgh George Drummond in 1763.  In it he explained to his interlocutor that the area to the north of the city would be built on (what is now called the New Town) and that he had first envisaged this in 1725.  Local government just doesn't have that kind of perspective these days.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Barham Again

Yet another scheme for the buildings in Barham Park is being put forward, according to the Kilburn Times.  This follows a prolonged effort to stop progress in Barham Park, which came to an end with the decision of the Planning Inspector to grant planning permission for change of use in September.  That was one of a string of implausible proposals put forward by former councillor and leader of Brent Liberal Democrats Paul Lorber.   

This latest attempt is aimed at taking over a section of the buildings that had been earmarked for a possible cafe, called the cardroom.   That part of the building is in a poor state of repair.  It is quite possible that there may not be sufficient resources to repair it.  If there are any Barham Library proposals would be subject to similar concerns as the "offer" over the former Preston Library

Friday, 14 November 2014

Building on the old Willesden Social Club

Going past the old Willesden Social Club site recently, I noticed a huge crane so I take it work is finally underway behind the hoardings.  I have been trying to get this site built on for ages.  I think my first activity was getting a petition for development together before I was elected a councillor in 2006.  It shows how hard some sites can be to get developed. 

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Edward Harvist Trust

Bids are invited for the latest rounds of grants from the Edward Harvist Trust.  Details are here.  This is the rather odd mechanism whereby some local authorities near the A5 give small grants to voluntary bodies.  Edward Harvist, after whom Harvist Road in Queens Park is named, bequeather money for the upkeep of the A5 in 1605, and this has now become a repository for grants to small community groups.  Isn't it odd how the English do things?

The deadline for applications is 15 December.  

Rising Local Government Corruption

The Audit Commission, in its last report before closure, reports that fraud in local government is rising.  One assumes that Eric Pickles regrets this, although his actions appear to promote it.  Some of the rise may be linked to people cutting corners as they get more desperate, but much is down to a running down of safeguards against corruption.  Not for the first time, Eric Pickles actions seem to conflict with his stated aims.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Harlesden Bypass

The Harlesden Town Web Site reminds us of previous plans for a bypass around Harlesden.  The plan quoted is from 1967, more or less the height of car based urban planning.  I doubt whether any bypass would be approved today.  The ideas put forward in the piece aren't likely to be put through.  The blue line route in particular would intensify pressure on Tubbs Road in particular, which is already very high.

One possible source of relief in Harlesden Town Centre, would be a strengthening of the Mitre Bridge to allow lorries over, and hence take them away from Harlesden Town Centre.  As far as I know, this is still scheduled

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Thoughts on Latest Restructuring at Brent

Details of the latest restructuring in Brent Council have emerged, and I can't say that I am impressed.  The present structure was invented two years ago in a process I thought seriously flawed and abnormally secretive.  This appears to be a process of the same people making the same mistakes in the same way.  There is no sign of any of the questions I asked previously being addressed. 

A few more comments:

The Assistant Chief Executive post, invented by Brent's permanent interim Chief Executive in the last restructuring, is being abolished.  As with the abolition of the Business Transformation Department four or five years ago, I regard this as an admission of a mistake in creating the post in the first place.

It is proposed to abolish a separate Libraries, Arts and Heritage  Head, and have a Head of Culture covering Sports, Parks  & Cemeteries as well.  That sounds like quite a bundle of responsibilities.  The pretext is that more of these services are now commissioned, although I think only Parks has been outsourced since the last restructuring.  The document also suggests that there will be major further cuts in this area, which realistically must mean cuts to the libraries budget.

The Borough Solicitor post is being downgraded to a more junior level.  Making this a more junior post has been criticised as likely to lead to more corruption and misuse of public money.  This is not an area that I believe Brent should be complacent about.

Assuming this process goes ahead as planned, by the end, Cllr Muhammed Butt (or whoever is driving this process) will have removed all the senior management team that were in place when he was elected leader, as well as many other members of staff.  To remove so many senior staff members in less than three years at a time when Brent is facing its toughest ever challenges does not strike me as wise in terms of stability and effectiveness as an organisation.

As with the previous restructuring, this one appears to have been rushed through General Purposes Committee with little opportunity for public Scrutiny.  Indeed I am not sure that even members of the Executive have been kept informed, let alone councillors as a whole.  Calls for better scrutiny of the last restructuring fell on deaf ears, I hope this is better.  The Council nhas got into the habit of publishing proposals and then working out what the problems with them are, which is not an effective way to do business. 

Monday, 10 November 2014

Original FKRL Proposal and Why it was Refused

I am still getting comments on the issue of Kensal Rise Library, even though the decision on it was made more than three years ago.  Rather than publish the same comments over and over again, I thought I would just publish the text of the original report.  You can see the full documentation here, with the reasons for refusing the FKRL proposal on page 157 of the appendices.  The formatting of the text is difficult, so it may be better to read it in the original (via the link), but as I know many people choose not to do this, I thought it worth quoting in full.   

I have put the original text in italics.  The report was divided into a heading, a short desciption of the proposition, followed by the officers' comments. I have put the headings in bold, the proposition underlined and the comments in normal italics

As I said, I don't intend to publish any more comments on this.  FKRL is apparently working on whatever they want to do in the space they have securing in the now privately owned former Kensal Rise Library Building.  I don't think there can be any useful discussion before those are published.

Viability of the group making this proposal
Existing group becomes a Charitable Trust which then enters into a joint venture with the Council to 
run the library. 
New formation. Existing Friends no experience of running services, managing
staff or volunteers. Lots of enthusiasm at the moment. Will this last? No costs included for running the 
group (eg accountancy, audit etc) Why would the Council enter into a JV? This deliberately transfers 
all risk back tothe Council, which was never an acceptable route.
Viability of proposals
To run on a volunteer basis with limited staffing. Open up upper floors, through capital investment,
and run on quasi- commercial basis. Proposal has three phases: 1 – Form JV, run mostly with
volunteers with 6hrs paid hours per day and opening for longer hours and with some additional
activities. 2 – undertake works to convert upper two floors, target completion 9/12. 3 - use first floor 
as learning space and upper floor as space for hire (back up plan as commercial hot desking office
space)
See comments below on staffing and volunteers.
Revenue information 
Costs in 10/11 for LBB have been reduced significantly, prior to the Library Transformation Project, 
by a range of efficiency measures. FKRL believe (for reasons not clear in the proposal) that this alters 
the issues, and also wish to reduce those numbers. The further efficiencies do not alter the relative 
usage of the different libraries in the service. Officers have reviewed the Cipfa Library stats 2009-10 
actuals (referenced in the proposal.) The financial information is aggregated at overall summary levels 
and thus it is not possible to identify Kensal Rise Library costs separately from this. The 2009-10 
budgeted costs for Kensal Rise were £24k net expenditure excluding staffing expenditure which is 
coded elsewhere and the 2010-11 budgeted costs for Kensal Rise are £31k net expenditure (again 
excluding staff costs). This relates to a reduction in the amount of budgeted income. Thus the net 
expenditure has arisen by £7k between the 2 years. The Friends suggest an amendment to the 
10/11 figures of 6,000. This is not correct, insofar as their assumptions are spelt out, but is also not a 
significant difference.
Revenue figures
Projected figures are not numbers for Phases 1, 2 and 3, but it is assumed the council contribution 
figures are per financial year, that Phase 1 runs till the building work begins (late 2011 on timescale 
suggested) Phase 2 then till September 12 and Phase 3 thereafter.
Phase 1 – even with the amended figures used, this relies on a Council contribution of £66,665. No 
income is assumed beyond the 5000 currently attributed to book sales and late returns.
Phase 2 – assumes a 50% increase in opening hours (1000 to 1900, 6 days a week) and a 
corresponding increase of 50% in staffing costs, and some small additions to costs of premises. Income
still at 5000. Council contribution now 80,661. Additional opening hours etc are despite the 
considerable disruption major building works require.
Phase 3 – Assumed significant additional revenue increase. The first floor proposal has potential given 
the stated interest from IntoUniveristy (although no signed letter of support was included.) The
second floor revenue assumption is riskier as neither community letters nor commercial hot-desk 
spaces are a strong business model, yet over £24k revenue is assumed. Council contribution 
now 55,319, and ongoing per annum. Income from sales/fines etc
– the figures assume continuing revenue of 5k per year. In fact this is diminishing as more
and more people renew on line, thus avoiding fines, and rental of DVDs is dropping dramatically. This 
is unreliable income.
Capital costs
The proposal is somewhat confusing on this front. The Council’s ongoing capital maintenance costs, 
set out according to usual practice represent £488,450 over 20 years. This does not allow for major
damage that would require additional resources. To this, the group has added just £17,478 for 
building a lift, and an unspecified sum for ‘fit-out’ which would include door widening, fire 
escape etc. To make the upper floors of Kensal Rise library DDA compliant will cost a very 
significant sum of money; provisional estimates by officers drawing experience of similar projects 
elsewhere suggest at least £250k. The proposal envisages raising this sum, but does not 
acknowledge how much will be needed to achieve the plan outlined above, in addition to regular 
maintenance.
Fundraising strategy for capital
The proposal is weak on real evidence of ability to raise these sums. Although the Globe Theatre is

given as a comparator,


this building has nothing resembling the same stature or appeal. No definite private or commercial 
sponsors in place. On public funds, this proposal also relies on £10,000 per year from ward working 
(in addition to the sums outlined above), a plan subject to both the continuation of that budget and 
 the agreement of members in the relevant wards. The group suggests preliminary discussions with 
the Mayor’s office, but there is no evidence of committed support. The group does not give any 
 evidence of experience of fund-raising (public or private) amongst its members.
Timescale 
The proposal envisages completing capital works by 9/12, which would mean starting on site at the 
very latest in 9/11, which would mean raising an assumed £250k in the next six months from a 
standing start. This is not a credible plan on the basis of the evidence presented.
Quality of the Proposals
Starts similar hours etc to current offer. Changes proposed after the capital investment completed.
Volunteers: unclear how volunteers will be identified for specific roles (front of house, stock 
management, security, library development etc), trained, managed and supported. A detailed delivery 
plan will be required, which appropriate are subject to CRB checks, and ongoing recruitment of new 
volunteers as people choose to move on. How will security be managed (eg if there are keyholders) 
across a large and shifting group of people? The group is explicit about proposals to identify 
volunteers and potential work experience interns, but not about the ongoing management of a 
complex and shifting group. It would be appropriate to develop a proper volunteer management 
strategy and show how the group has the expertise to deliver it. This should address health and 
safety issues, not least those relating to people working alone in public buildings.
Staffing
– the proposal assumes 6 working hours a day (1 librarian and 1 assistant librarian working 3 hours 
each). It is not clear what the roles of these staff would be, or their relationship to the volunteers, the 
 Trust or the joint venture company. The group appears to assume these staff would remain LBB 
employees, but the sums allocated are considerably lower than those required, especially when 
 overheads, training, management etc are taken into account. The issue of staffing and related costs 
 needs careful review.
The Trust
– who runs it and where are the costs of its management?
Stock and services
– the proposal assumes that the KR library remains part of the LBB library ecology for the
purposes of membership and stock management. This would mean remaining linked to the LBB system 
for issuing cards, access to returns and renewals, acquiring new users and buying books. This has led 
 the group to allow only £500 is allocated to buy books in Phases 1 and 2). The group would be tied to 
LBB penalties etc to ensure fairness. LBB users have access to 14 boroughs’ libraries through the 
Summary comment and appraisal Consortium, so protocols must be developed and enforced for data 
access within government guidelines on security.. Stock buying - the Trust has allocated 500 for stock 
compared to the £19,500 currently ascribed to buying new stock for Kensal Rise library in the current 
arrangements (£550K stock acquisitions budget in 11/12, spread across 12 libraries.) If this model was
 adopted, there is a (small but not zero) overhead cost for  processing. Stock standards the proposal is 
silent on ensuring that the stock does not include (for example) offensive or racist material, and does
 seek to meet the needs of local people, presumably because stock acquisition decisions would be left 
with LBB, although no overhead is assumed for this role. 
Promotion of diversity and inclusion. 
 Little is said in the proposal. 
It should be noted that a great deal of effort is being put into achieving DDA compliance in a building
 ill-suited to contemporary demands for access. Such access, however desirable, does not mean that 
the organisation has met the Council’s expectations around issues of diversity and inclusion 
regarding eg book stock, availability of space for a wide range of groups, or access to volunteering. 
Delivering the Council’s savings.
The proposal assumes the following grant from the Council although the timescales are not given in 
the paperwork beyond aiming to complete work in 9/12: Phase 1: 61,665 - say for 6 months –30,832 
Phase 2: 85, 661, say for 1 year Phase 3: 55,319 say from 9/12,  and then one year thereafter to 3/14 
82,978 This gives total subsidy (assuming no capital support) over the first three years of operation of 
£163,670.
£163,670 subsidy over 3 years.  Does not meet savings expectations, of zero cost to Council. Over the 
EU thresholds for provision of services (currently £156,000 for the contract) Note comments above 
risky assumptions around both capital and revenue, and probable underestimate of costs for staffing 
and books and services overheads. Note that if the model assumed at Phase1 were continued over time, 
at 61,665 per annum (if this number is correct, the EU thresholds would still be exceeded before  
three years of operation.








Acceptability of contractual terms and transfer of risk
The proposal assumes that the joint venture company would run the building subject to consent fro
m All Souls College.
Property
Because of the assumed JV, the risk would remain with the Council. The outline capital strategy refers to the straight-line assumed maintenance costs identified in the council’s asset management strategy, but is inadequate to meet them, meaning that there would
remain a considerable outstanding liability on the Council itself.
Operational contract
– the proposal is silent on a number of key issues relating, for example to staffing, public liability, insurance etc.
Staffing
– see comments above. If the staff remained LBB employees,appropriate oncosts and management overheads must be identified.
Risk to the Council in proposed route
The identified subsidy would rapidly exceed EU thresholds.
There are considerable inherent risks identified in financial expectations, property management and staffing. If these were resolved, then the Council would need to consider the impact of procurement regulations on this proposal.

Library Objectives

This article from the USA raises the need to define the objectives in the American context, but it seems just as important that we do so in the UK.  Unfortunately debate on libraries is still largely dominated by a "just say no" approach by campaigners to any sort of reform and a focus on keeping buildings open by local authorities keen to avoid political flak.

Such approaches ignore the fact that both library services and the areas they serve are going through huge change because of technology, demographics and so on.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Old Library Buildings in Brent

Following my earlier post on Kilburn Library I thought I might as well do an update on the old library buildings and their new uses. 

Barham Park:  This is a complex of buildings, not just the former library.  The Childrens Centre and Veteran Club continue.  Following a consultation, it was suggested that the part known as "the cardroom" might be redeveloped as a cafe.  I don't know whether that has been progressed.  The rest of the building (including the area that used to be used by the Parks service as offices) has been rented by ACAVA.  Hopefully they will help draw people to Barham Park in themselves as well as providing the Barham Trust with a regular income for the first time.  There is also now a plan for gradually redeveloping the park to make it more attractive. 
Cricklewood:  The owner at Cricklewood is hoping to get planning permission for a development.  This would involve housing and a community centre area.  The community centre has a local group lined up for occupancy after a long negotiation.  Planning permission has yet to be granted.
Kensal Rise:  The Friends of Kensal Rise Library have agreed a similar deal to the Cricklewood one.  This will be an interesting one as the same people previously denounced a very similar arrangement as "unworkable".  We shall see what happens next.
Neasden: Back in 2011, this was rented to a church.  They are a sub tenant of Brent Council who remain until 2023.  It is unlikely that Brent Council would want to continue as tenants after that date.  The sub tenancy allows the Council to cover its costs.
Preston:  Preston I have covered in a couple of posts here and here.  This is the most problematic as the group that seeks to occupy the building appears to envisage various forms of subsidy (although some of the other groups may look for subsidy and be subject to the same legal objections arising from the Bailey judgement)  At the moment the building continue as part of Preston Primary School.  It should become clear whether this will continue in early 2015.
Tokyngton:  Tokyngton was sold to an Islamic Cultural Association and is now used as a mosque. 

UPDATE
I have had a comment which, with dreary inevitability, centres on the former Kensal Rise Library.  Anyone who wants to see the reasoning for refusing the original proposal from FKRL can follow the link here.  I don't intend to publish any more comments on the subject, as they just seem to repeat points made many times in the past.  Perhaps once FKRL publish their new proposals I might do a post then.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Stonebridge Adventure Playground and Brent Council

I have been following the campaign against the redevelopment of the Stonebridge Adventure Playground with interest.  It seems to me an obvious example where a political choice has to be made. 

Advocates of change would point to the importance of providing school places, which every one would agree with (I suppose).  Many would say more housing is also important, although I suspect the housing is there to pay for the cost of the school expansion.  I have seen some rather unfair comments on unsupervised play.  The Stonebridge Adventure Playground has play equipment that needs to be supervised, and serves an area of high deprivation, but that doesn't mean that unsupervised play has no value.  Brent Parks has built a wide range of MUGAs across the Borough, and in the right place, they can be highly effective for play for older children.  Such children may specifically prefer play without adult supervision.  On the other hand, the Playground campaigners obviously feel the existing facility has enormous value which is in danger of being lost.

It seems to me that the political role here is in the first instance to work out whether both sets of needs can be accommodated.  Either the ward councillors and/or the Executive members should examine the details of the scheme to ask (for example) Can the existing facility be incorporated or reprovided in a new scheme?  Can the housing be reprovided at another site, and how much social value does it have? What are the needs of the local area based on evidence, rather than just gut feeling?

Once you have some evidence, you can then make a value judgement as to what the best way forward is.  To claim you are "neutral" doesn't really cut it.  A choice has to be made.  Maybe it might be for a third option that meets both the Playground campaigner and the school goals, but a choice will have to be made at some point, and it is the business of the councillors as elected people to make that choice in a reasoned and transparent manner. 

Friday, 7 November 2014

You May Have Missed...

Brent's own Conrad Hall (the Finance Director of Brent Council) has some comments relating to LOBOs and Treasury Management here.  I wonder how on top of all this Brent councillors are.

London Libraries in the Firing Line

More London Library services are now considering closure programmes.  Both Barnet and Harrow are thinking about the issue.  Personally I am glad that Brent settled its strategy in 2011.  If it were only being considered now, I suspect the Council would be going through a crude budget cutting exercise, with little regard for service improvements. 

Barnet's plans strike me as especially strange, as they emphasize creating much smaller libraries with more limited services.  That is the opposite of what was done in Brent, where services were concentrated in larger buildings which people could travel to.  Making the buildings smaller makes them less flexible for events, and helps ensure that only one thing can be done at a time.  For instance a noisy storytime session in a very small library might drive other users out, while a big library like Wembley can accommodate such sessions whilst other people continue to use the library for quiet space. 

I can also see that the Barnet report has been written with potential litigation very much in mind. 

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Tower Hamlets and Brent

Eric Pickles has intervened in Tower Hamlets, and effectively taken over control of parts of the Council.  Something similar was done by the Welsh government in Anglesey, and I have warned it is a danger for any authority that fails to meet its legal obligations, including Brent.  The full statement is here.  I thought it would be useful to go through his statement and see how it could be applied to Brent.  His words are in italics.

PwC found that the mayoral administration’s grants programme handed out taxpayers’ money with no apparent rationale for the grant awards... There was no proper monitoring. Grants were systematically made without transparency.

This has been a fear in many local authorities.  Brent has made long strides to try make its grant giving systematic and transparent, but there have been problems in individual cases.  I particularly think of the "offer" around the former Preston Library as running into difficulties as not being in line with the Council's established policy on libraries or its fiduciary duty.  A lot of people seem to have trouble connecting this kind of concrete example to these rather abstract principles, but I think there is a real danger of the former Preston Library case offering a possible reason for SoS intervention.

This has also often been a danger in some cases of ward working grants.  Hence, it is vitally important to have a paper trail to show that everything is above board.  The fact that some councillors and groups find this irksome makes it no less important.  Eric Pickles has explicitly justified his intervention on the failure of Tower Hamlets to carry out its "best value" duty. 

On land disposal, properties were sold to third parties without proper process.

Again this is a danger for any Council.  Undeclared interests, leaks of confidential information in the bidding process and "sweetheart" deals are all dangers.  Whether any of these have applied to Brent Council I cannot say.

Taxpayers’ money was spent on unlawful political advertising for the mayor.

As far as I know, Brent has not run into this kind of difficulty.  Occasional complaints by one or other party have struck me as essentially groundless.  However, the number of communications staff has grown in the past couple of years, which is rather odd as in some cases communications work has been outsourced.  Whether there is anything wrong about this is impossible to say without further information. 

Irregular practice took place in the awarding of contracts. For example, PwC identified cases in which one of the council’s officers recalls that, during a meeting, the mayor allegedly annotated a list of suppliers to indicate which suppliers he did not wish to be selected. 

There were attempts to do this in the case of the award of the Public Realm Contract to Veolia.  Despite some rather unnecessary toing and froing, that attempt failed, and the Public Realm Contract was awarded on proper criteria. 

The council’s core governance arrangements have centred on the three statutory officers: the head of paid service, the chief financial officer, and the monitoring officer. The council has failed to make permanent appointments to those key positions. Currently, all three posts are held by interim appointments. PwC concludes that the governance arrangements do not appear capable of preventing or responding to the succession of failures by the mayoral administration. Executive power is unchecked and executive power has been misused.

This is a very serious danger for Brent Council.  Brent last had a permanent Chief Executive in October 2012, when the incumbent was removed without explanation by Cllr Muhammed Butt.  Since then the post has been held by an interim Chief Executive.  This is part of a pattern of relying on a growing number of interim staff, and has caused me concern in the past

Free and fair elections must be the bedrock of local democracy.

As far as I know, there is no substantial reason to be concerned by the conduct of local elections in Brent.

In addition to the reasons given above for intervention, Brent Council has credible concerns over the possible misconduct and/or incompetence of its human resources.  There has been a well documented Employment Tribunal case involving racist bullying, but I believe that there have been other cases of bullying and victimisation, and that there is currently no effective mechanism addressing this.  The rise in the use of interim staff also concerns me as its may well point to wasted public resources.

At the same time, institutional barriers to corruption have been weakened, and the Scrutiny functions that should provide a check on abuses have been virtually abolished.  In addition, the switch away from collegiate decision making to a more Leader led model makes all the operations of the Council less transparent, and arguably less competent.  

Hilary Benn's response shows that there is cross party agreement that competent and honest decision making in local government must be safeguarded.  I certainly don't think that Brent has got to anything like the depth of Tower Hamlets, but there is a real danger that standards are slipping, and I hope Brent councillors take action before outside parties do.  If Brent were ever to lose its reputation in the way Tower Hamlets has done, it would take many years to recover.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Human Resources Failures in Brent Council

Tonight, the General Purposes Committee of Brent Council is discussing yet another restructuring.  The document is restricted, so one can't learn what is in it.  It follows on from another recent restructuring that I suspect has been been badly botched.  Given the same people are now conducting another restructuring so soon after the previous one, I doubt whether any of the key questions will be either asked or answered.  This really is an area crying out for wider scrutiny by councillors.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Kilburn Library Refurbishment

I suggested that I would go through the benefits of the Kilburn Library refurbishment, following a rather ignorant comment published yesterday.  The refurbishment was budgeted at £650k, although I believe it came in slightly under.  You can see some photos of the refurbished Kilburn Library here.  Unfortunately, I don't have photos of how it looked before.

The Alternatives for Kilburn Library
Kilburn Library had been neglected for years prior to the Libraries Transformation project, and some of the "Library Campaigners" would not only have been happy for that to continue; they actually argued it should be closed completely.  That may startle people, but it is nonetheless true.  If you look at option 1 of the "Save Preston Libraries Campaign" (page 167 here), it says "Close Kilburn instead of Preston".  The same document suggests closing Neasden, Tokyngton, and Willesden Green.  Closing Kilburn Library was also suggested by the Leader of the Library Democrats in a Council committee in 2011.  Some campaigners also favoured cutting opening hours drastically, perhaps by 40%, which would have left Kilburn Library open only three days a week.

The Kilburn Library Refurbishment
For some years, Kilburn Library had a problem with leaks in the roof and the windows, which the refurbishment fixed.  A French drain was installed in the KIlburn Library garden to limit dampness coming though the walls.  There was also treatment of the brickwork, the guttering and so on.  This was a substantial part of the capital cost.

New heating and lighting was installed.  The building was completely rewired, allowing for more use of computers.  A new children's area was created at the front, and the building redesigned inside so that quieter areas would be at the back, and the whole inside made more user friendly.  There is now more flexibility about events, and a proper disabled accessible toilet.  The capacity of Kilburn Library for books was increased from c. 25,000 to c. 32,000, and staff now circulate within the Library.  The bookstock was also upgraded.

Following this refurbishment, user numbers have roughly doubled. 

Monday, 3 November 2014

Ed Vaizey not Minded to take Library Action Again

The DCMS is apparently "not minded" to order an enquiry into Sheffield as had been threatened  Despite quoting the Lincolnshire judgement, the DCMS makes no comment on whether IT provision is now considered as part of the "comprehensive and efficient" duty.  I also notice that the minister considers the community managed libraries to be additional to the legal duty i.e. if they fail, they will not be a trigger for action. 

A copy of the letter is linked here.  

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Alfred the Great and Today's Austerity

Here is a beautiful tribute to learning and languages, via Clerk of Oxenford, by Alfred the Great.  The King's words are as good a tribute as I have read to the importance of books and learning.  That he could recognise the importance of such things, that some politicians consider "extras" today given his own experience of near annihilation at the hands of the Danes is a tribute to his humanity and true greatness, compared to the shallowness of many modern politicians.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Fracking and Brent Council

GetWestLondon has a story on Brent Council and fracking here.  It mistakenly refers to the Council as "anti-fracking".   Although there has been a press release to that effect, there haven't actually been any changes in planning policy.  Any changes should, I think, appear in this document and I can't see any. 

Fracking in Brent has never struck me as a major concern, since my understanding is that Thames Valley clay is not suitable for fracking (as Brent Council appears to confirm).  I do find it odd that a group demands an anti-fracking stance.  The Council Leader pledges to devote legal resources against fracking, and then nothing is done.  It is even odder that this is being done despite the nature of the Brent soil meaning that no fracking will take place anyway.  It is as if everyone is just operating in a realm of fantasy.