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Saturday, 31 December 2016

Delayed Reactions

I have suggested before that NHS plans in Brent just aren't getting the kind of scrutiny they need.  An example might be the proposals for a common NHS/Council estate strategy.  This has been seen by councillors, but I don't get a sense that there has been any real input as to what the priorities should be or what the strategy should be.  This is the kind of thing that gets pushed through in a committee meeting and suddenly explodes into controversy a long time afterward. 

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Brent Councillors Last to Know

Cllr Sharma Tatler was appointed to the Regeneration post vacated by Cllr Roxanne Mashari.  This appointment appears to have been made without even bothering to inform the Labour Group, a striking illustration of Cllr Butt's dictatorial style. 

Saturday, 17 December 2016

What is Affordable Housing?

A lot of controversy is generated by the term "affordable housing", since in London especially, it is often far from affordable.  Here is a quick summary of the main types of housing sent to me by a senior housing officer:

Affordable Rent- for family units are usually 60-65% of market rents or the LHA (whichever is the lower), whereas 1-2 bed units are up to 80% of market rent or LHA (whichever is the lower).
 
Social Rent - averages out at 50% of market rent, may be slightly higher (usually 5%) above Social Rent target rents.
 
Intermediate Rent- above both Affordable or Social Rent, but will be below the market value, approx. 90% of market rent.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Yet Another Brent Council Executive Change

I understand that yet another member of Brent's Council Cabinet has stood down.  This time it is Cllr Roxanne Mashari.  Prior to Cllr Keith Perrin in September 2014, it was highly unusual for councillors to step down from the Executive.  Now, Cllr Mike Pavey, Cllr Wilheimina Mitchell=Murray and Cllr Roxanne Mashari all appear to have stood down having only been elected in May this year.  What exactly is going on?

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Library Decline

The Guardian reports continuing decline is usage in public libraries across the UK.  As I have pointed out before, Brent's record is markedly better. Once again, Wembley Library comes out as the UK's third most visited (after Birmingham and Manchester). 

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Small Business Saturday Not Coming to Brent

Yesterday was Small Business Saturday.  At least was in most places.  Brent did not seem to have any promotional events despite it being marked across the rest of the UK.  This seems a shame when areas like Harlesden Town Centre and Ealing Road are particularly notable for the ir independent shops.. 

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Kilburn Regeneration Finally Under Scrutiny

I have been worried by the lack of public engagement in the South Kilburn regeneration before, so it is good to see that the public are at last demanding a say.  But why has it taken so long?  Possibly the Scrutiny Committee, who have this as an upcoming item, might have some answers.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Butt Sticks out on NHS

In a recent dialogue with Cllr Muhammed Butt, I discovered a reason why Brent Council is apparently so relaxed about the NHS Sustainability and Transformation Plan (STP).  In his view, it is going to enhance service at Central Middlesex Hospital.  

This is, to put it mildly, not a commonly held belief.  Even the STP's defenders think it is being driven partly by expenditure cuts and involves shifting resources away from Central Middlesex, Charing Cross and Ealing Hospitals in particular.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

NHS Sustainability and Transformation Plan (STP)

It always strikes me as remarkable what attracts controversy and what does not.  Brent Council normally has enormous rows over buildings that, whatever there merits often affect fairly small numbers of users.  By contrast, big policies that affect thousands of people like taking BHP properties back in house get little comment. 

An even more striking example is the NHS Sustainability and Transformation Plan for North West London.  The Cabinet minutes show little concern over this.  Yet, it is likely to see a substantial downgrading of Central Middlesex and Charing Cross Hospitals, which affects a large part of the southern part of Brent.  Why the reticent response?

Monday, 21 November 2016

Brent Council Finally Updating Air Quality Plan

I am glad to see that the most recent Forward Plan for Brent Council finally includes an update of the Air Quality Action Plan.  I must say it does seem to come rather late in the day.  The last one became due for an update some years ago.  As I have pointed out before, Brent Council's main influence on air quality is through reducing transport emissions.  Its parking policies are not always consistent in this.  Let us hope they sharpen up.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Brent Tory Shambles Deepens

The Brent Tories appear to have issued a sort of clarification of their earlier "deselection" remarks which really just muddies the waters further.  I am not sure what it all means, other than leaving me with the impression that they all, perhaps understandably, loathe each other.  In particular, I am struck by Cllr Davidson's quote:

"He added: “Originally it [the party fallout] was about money, it was about allowances and that was a problem.  Now we have the allowances we should be one group.”

It is unusual for a politician to suggest that he and his colleagues just want the money.  Generally politicians of all parties try to sound (and I think are) a bit more high minded.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Ealing Road Library Redevelopment



I have been learning a bit more about the proposed development of Ealing Road Library.  It is a more interesting development than I thought earlier

Firstly there is obviously some thought into how to develop the site in a way to help the Town Centre.  I think all Brent libraries have this potential to some extent, with Willesden and Wembley being perhaps the best examples.  I like the way the author is trying to get the open space to fit in with the buildings and be part of a wider vision for the future of Ealing Road in what he calls a "gem chain strategy".


Gem Chain - screen.jpg

The picture above shows a kind of stylised Ealing Road with the library as one of the gems. The plan for the library itself is to have two wings, one with a cafe and one with some sort of " rentable community and enterprise hub".

The space between is a courtyard that can be used for outdoor events. According to the developer: "The public space will be truly public and accessible to all. The intention of the space is that for the majority of the week the space will act as an informal gathering and meeting space with adequate permanent public seating and cycle parking to service the existing library function and support the proposed new uses. The cafe will use the space for outdoor seating with furniture that is removed in the evenings. The library might also choose to run some of its activities in the space from time to time."

 The whole thing is an interesting concept, and would help connect the public building to the public realm in an interesting way.  I hope the designer, Mark Projects, doesn't mind me using both photo above and his rather old school model:


03 - lo.jpg

Further details can be found here

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Tory Shambles at Brent Council

The shambles of the Brent Tories continues.  Half the Tory councillors in Brent are now deselected.  Does the group really merit having a leader, deputy leader and whip for a group of only three councillors?  Do they still get an office and a political assistant?

UPDATE (2.11.16)
It seems that there was more to this story than I immediately realised.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Reviewing Kilburn Plans

The next Brent Council Cabinet has important documents on South Kilburn.  Among other things these include changes to the Carlton and Granville Centres, which have generated controversy.  Some controversy on such matters is, I suppose, inevitable. 

Yet I can't help but feel that the Council should be concerned at its failure to engage the public, or indeed their elected representatives.  I have remarked this before.  I am sure that some of the reasons for this are understandable.  Putting these questions in an accessible format is not easy, and people often have other things to do than respond to Council consultations, but in a situation when even the local councillors feel somewhat removed form the process surely something is wrong somewhere? 

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Inconsistent Parking Policy

Predictably, former Cllr Paul Lorber is attacking Brent Council's parking policies here.  Cllr Southwood explains the broad reasoning behind the strategy.  Essentially the reasons for the charges (and the whole principle of regulation) are to do with the need to regulate traffic, rationing very limited space and environmental benefits particularly in terms of air quality.  Before winning office in 2006, Paul Lorber and Liberal Democrat colleagues were promising free CPZ parking, a promise they reneged on in office. 

However, if the Council supports the use of charges, and very steep rises in charges, for the purposes cited, how does that square with the free parking policy at certain sites in the run up to Christmas?  Doesn't that encourage car use in the way that raising car parking charges is designed to discourage?  Isn't following both policies at once rather contradictory?

In fact, I don't believe that the free parking policy is going to be much use to Brent Town Centres, and my reasons are these:

  • When I was looking at changes to Harlesden Town Centre, I was assured that only about 15% of shoppers to an average London Town Centre came by car.  Most travel on foot or by public transport.
  • To some extent, the free parking policy will encourage negative factors such as poor air quality and traffic congestion that make the centres less attractive to shop in.
  •  Thirdly, the free parking only forms an attraction where there are Council parks that are part of the scheme.  Places like Kilburn High Road lose out from any supposed benefit because it has no Council owned park.
It all seems to be a rather unclear set of policies.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Willesden Library Debacle?

Several points come out from a recent account of a Willesden Connects meeting here.  A small group of Chandos Road residents are unhappy about highway works in their road under the policy change I referred to here.

Essentially, in what I guess is a largely savings driven exercise, Brent committed to greater use of tarmac to replace paving.  There are circumstances, such as where there a large number of trees, where this may give a better walking surface.  Anyone familiar with the extremely uneven paving of Furness Road pavements will know what I mean.  This kind of unevenness if often the result of  tree roots.  The description is not very clear.  It implies that all the trees are being destroyed, although Brent's policy as far as I know is to replace trees one for one as close to the original tree as possible.  Of course, this will generally be with a younger tree and often involves  a different species either to avoid subsidence or because a different species is judged to have a greater chance of survival.

The report also includes a personalised attack on Cllr Janice Long implying that she doesn't take an interest in highway matters, although she is actually the Brent councillor with the greatest knowledge of and interest in highway matters on Brent Council.

The report is also notable for suggesting that Cllr Butt disclaimed knowledge or responsibility for the policy.  As I have observed before, this is his standard approach.  I am more surprised to find people accepting it apparently at face value when several previous episodes suggest that Cllr Butt simply agrees with whoever he is speaking to at the time.  In this case, his audience said they didn't like the surfacing and he played along.  Apparently his interlocutors don't notice that in previous meeting he has been one of the people voting through the policy they disagree with.

Willesden Green Library
However, what really caught my eye in the piece is the reference to the "Willesden Green Library debacle".  I would guess this phrase comes from Martin Redstone, who is a member of the tarmac group and a lead opponent of the new Library at Willesden Green.as well as a long term critic of any changes to Dollis Hill House.

How could Willesden Green Library reasonably be described as a debacle?  In terms of the library user visits and loans are up, as is public satisfaction.  A number of the objections to the building have been proved to be untrue, and the objectors don't seem keen on returning to them.  

Moving beyond the library, I would say the permanent exhibition is impressive.  The recent Grunwick exhibition strikes me as just the sort of display that a good local history museum should aim at.  There is also the archive service, which is a service available in fewer and fewer Boroughs, since (like the Museum) it is non-statutory.

The spaces around the Library proper have hosted a broad range of film, dance, theatre and other events, including a number of book readings.  Some of this is referred to on the Libraries Taskforce web siteThere is also a good range of exhibitions in the art gallery.  To my mind, all this vindicates the Libraries Transformation Project, and I really don't see how any one can refer to it as a debacle.  

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Driving in Parks

I have discovered the reasons for the new kissing gates into King Edward VII park.  Apparently, it is to prevent moped drivers from using the park as a cut through.  It reminds me that several years ago, car drivers would also drive through between the Sports centre and Treetops nursery.  Why can't people see that is not something you should do in a public park?

Friday, 4 November 2016

Brent Libraries Finally Blowing its Own Trumpet

I am glad to see that Brent Library Service is blowing its own trumpet on the web site of the Libraries Task force.  In my view, Brent Libraries don't do that enough.  The piece concerns the wider promotion of arts in public libraries and Willesden Library in particular.  This was an important part of the Libraries Transformation Project, which liberated the Culture service to expand in new ways.

As well as being valuable in themselves, these services help to bring the libraries into use for more traditional purposes, the promotion of reading and writing.  Just as with the libraries' digital offer, this is too often seen as a zero sum game whereas these other activities can actually bring people into libraries who might not normally go. 

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Why are Bigger Libraries Better?

I have suggested that, at least for urban areas with good transport links, fewer but bigger libraries tend to be better.  This goes against the grain of many people, who want as many library buildings as possible.  It also has not been a policy generally pursued.  I suspect because of the sheer controversy associated with consolidating the numbers of libraries, many authorities, such as Lambeth and Islington have gone to great lengths to keep their buildings open.

Let us look at the example of Willesden Library, which has sixty odd PCs.  Some of these are drop in, some are bookable, and some have special facilities such as scanners.  If you go into a building with that many PCs, the chances are some will be free at any one time.  If the same number of PCs were scattered across more than one building, your chances of turning up and finding all the PCs occupied would be greater.  Where you are looking at specialist equipment such as accessibility software or scanners the total number in even a big library like Willesden might be quite small.  If a smaller library has such facilities at all, there may be only one PC available when you want to use it.  In that sense the bigger library becomes inherently more accessible.

A similar logic applies to book stock.  The bigger library is more likely to have multiple copies of a given book, so that if demand is enormous (for say text books in the run up to exams), the bigger library is more likely to have them to hand. 

This is also true if there are break downs.  If say a printer gets broken, the big library with multiple printers can help you get round that.  A smaller library with only one would just have to wait for an engineer.

Islington
When we were going through our Libraries Transformation Project in 2010/11, it was pointed out to me that Islington was keeping a dozen libraries open in six sets of pairs.  Each pair would keep a library open three days a week and the pairs would alternate.  That is ingenuous in terms of avoiding building closure, but doesn't make the maximum use of resources since half the PCs and books would be in a closed library half the time.

Other Advantages
Another advantage of bigger libraries is that the wider number of activities in a bigger library such as Willesden can draw in a bigger audience, and the sheer size of the building has greater flexibility, so you get more flexibility for different activities.  For instance a noisy children's group can take place simultaneously with quiet study on the top floor.  That is harder if the space is constricted.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Nationalisation and Privatisation

I remarked a while ago on the phantom privatisation of Council Housing in the shapes of ALMOs, it is equally striking how little comments there has been on the nationalisation of housing associations by the present Conservative government. 

What is striking about this is that it was just announced by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) one day that Housing Associations had become public corporations.  A useful paper from Northern Ireland explains the process.  I think the ONS were quite right.  If the government starts telling you that you have to sell off your assets, how you reinvest the capital, what rents you can charge and so on you are effectively nationalised. 

Nonwtheless, no one seems to have publicly reacted to this new fact.  I suspect the Tory ministers that did it literally had no idea what they were doing.  Given that their great objective since election in 2010 was supposed to be getting getting public debt down, the effect of taking on the liabilities of the Housing Associations on to the public books is pretty embarrassing.  I would have though just wiping out the business plans of these organisations at a stroke also sat very ill with traditional Tory philosophy.  It must be the biggest nationalisation since Stephen Byers took over Network Rail, maybe bigger.

The Labour Party has also been surprisingly reticent on the subject, but even more striking has been the silence of the Hard Left.  It is, after all, an indication that the problems of a sector don't necessarily just fall away with a change of ownership.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Helen Milner and Digital Engagement

Some of the commentary on Helen Milner's views on library strategy appears to be unaware of how involved she is in the sector.  A recent report from her organisation on digital involvement and public libraries can be downloaded here.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

A Modern Mission for Libraries

Helen Milner of the Tinder Foundation has rather bravely suggested that public libraries have to move on from the "never close a library position".  For that she deserves praise, and she gets a balanced review from Public Libraries News which first alerted me to her post.  It is striking how the public libraries debate has never moved beyond demands that Building X should never close, or it sometimes feels, even change.

Helen sees another side of things, where must be acutely aware of the need for a large part of the population to engage digitally.  Failure to do so risks greater social division and lack of opportunity as both public and private organisations are increasingly organised around digital technology.

Libraries can play a huge role in meeting these needs, but too often seem to get bogged down in autobiographical arguments about some celebrities' childhood.

Brent's Libraries Transformation Project was a serious attempt to tackle these issues at a local level, and one that was markedly successful. 

Why Aren't Local Authority Libraries Better?
Why don't more authorities do this if it is so important?  I suspect that is down to a combination of failing to understand how modern libraries can feed into a digital agenda; the fierce resistance of a vocal minority and sheer lack of ambition.

The first of these is summed by those celebrities.  Time and again, I have read articles and interviews that speak nostalgically about childhood in a public library but seem to have no awareness of how libraries can be used to broaden peoples' access to knowledge, which was their original Victorian purpose.  One can also read a minority of articles arguing libraries are redundant.  Again, this is based on the assumption that they have no capacity for change.  Essentially, one has to get across the argument that the modern version of the traditional mission of encouraging people to read (and write) now includes reading and writing digitally.  That means making modern IT and forms of social media less frightening for many people, making other people more aware of technology's limitations as well as possibilities and also how to navigate online in what can be quite basic ways.  That is a really big, bold mission which public libraries are uniquely placed to perform and it is not widely realised.

The second strand here that is actually becoming an obstacle here is the vocal campaigns that always seem to be framed in terms of the status quo.  Helen Milner is right to try to say the starting point should be what are the strategic aims of a library service and how might it achieve them.  I would not quite start with a blank piece of paper as she suggests, but an awareness of how society has changed since the libraries were built might be useful.  That means where the population is, how people get around, what they expect of services, how they access what they need and all sorts of other things.

That kind of analysis seems to get blanked out by two other things.  One is a kind of "just say No" approach.  In Brent, we saw campaign groups shouting (often literally) that there must be no change of any kind.  That is actually an oddly authoritarian position.  It assumes that whoever made decisions in the past chose not just the best distribution of resources for that moment but also for all time.  In a case like Brent, where some groups have devoted huge energy to denouncing public libraries as a total disaster, I think some people find themselves psychologically unable to accept any evidence of success, including the opinions of people who actually use libraries.  That seems a great pity, coming from people whose very desire to defend libraries has led them where they are now.

The second area which I think has really played into the decline of the libraries is the idea of volunteers keeping a library open.  This is in many ways an easier option for councillors.  Compared to the rows Brent went through, you can see that keeping a building "open" for shorter hours, but with not much in them is a hell of a lot easier than going the difficulty of actually reforming a public service with most of the pain immediate but the benefits years down the line, and perhaps invisible even then.  Just quiet piecemeal cutting makes for a much quieter life, and with many councillors under so many other pressures, and often failing to understand the potential of libraries to change the lives of people they represent for the better, you can see why they opt for the quiet life.

Which brings me to the final point.  Local authorities, battered by cuts, are losing the ambition to really shape their areas for the better.  This is true not just of libraries but in general.  Ambitious schemes seem pie in the sky when you struggle to keep your head above water, but sometimes ambitious schemes are the only way to keep your head above water.  Clinging to the safe and reliable as the tide wash over you may be more likely to lead to drowning than a difficult scramble up a cliff.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Dynamism in the Libraries Debate

A comment here wonders what I make of the proposals to reduce Walsall's libraries to just one.  I am no expert on Walsall, but it looks like another local council doing its best to cope with central government cuts that are frankly unsustainable.  George Osborne's economic strategy was counterproductive, constantly missing its targets, and Philip Hammond has been pragmatic enough to accept that.

Provided they have good transport links, urban areas may be in a position to follow a Brent type strategy of fewer buildings open for longer with more in them.  In Brent that has seen both usage and borrowing go up, as well as higher levels of public satisfaction.  This kind of thing has also worked in other praised authorities,  

The other thing that strikes me about the Guardian piece is its similarity to many other pieces I have read.  It is frustrating that journalists appear not to be able to get beyond these staples: cuts to budgets, closures (never any diffrentiation between closing different kinds of library), personal anecdotes about libraries in the past.

The famous legal duty to provide libraries has been effectively rewritten by first the Bailey case and then the Draper case in Lincolnshire.  The Sieghart Review's emphasis on Wifi provision further strenghens the case for IT facilities being considered as part of the overall library provision.  Yet the government still seems to have failed to catch up with these developments

Chi Onwuroh had an IT background, and Tom Watson _ who now covers the DCMS portfolio _ is enthusiastic about the digital economy and how it is changing our society.  I would have thought this plays into a pro-library agenda quite easily if only campaigners would engage in a more persuasion orientated mode.

Likewise, I think it a great pity that there is talk about parts of libraries being used as cafes, but this tends to be discussed simply in terms of commercial rents.  Such a use could also have a big impact on how libraries are used more generally.  Hence my frustration at the slow progress in Willesden

Then there is a whole other debate about what is a community hub, and how can such things be managed most effectively, which is perhaps a subject for another post.

Monday, 24 October 2016

NHS Sustainability and Transformation Plan

Tonight's Brent Council cabinet is going to consider the proposed NHS Sustainability and Transformation Plan for the NHS in this part of London.  The plan strongly implies the closure of various facilities.  Were there a wider public understanding of this, I think it would be hugely controversial, but I suspect the controversy will only start once the individual decisions come in. 

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Housing ALMOs

I was interested to read the account given of recent suggestions that Brent's Housing ALMO (Brent Housing Partnership, or BHP) be taken back in house.  The history of these matters is interesting, especially given the contrast between Brent and Camden.

Both Councils were considered to have good housing departments and considered forming ALMOs at the same time.  This was back when the Labour government was making massive investments in local government (about 2003/4).  The debate in Brent Labour Party was pretty short and simple.  The then Lead Member for Housing, Cllr Richard Harrod (now sadly died), told us that if we formed an ALMO Brent would get about £5,000 per property to do them up.  Aside from a few hard left people, everyone thought that was pretty much a no-brainer and we went for it and formed BHP.

In Camden, there was a campaign led by the Camden New Journal telling tenants that this was privatisation and urging rejection.  A referendum by Council tenants rejected the money and the formation of the ALMO.  The tenants were then surprised to learn that without the ALMO, they would get no money and there was a long stand off with central government where the government refused extra money without the formation of an ALMO.  It was one of those episodes where I felt that misinformation (Both the privatisation accusation and the illusion of choice) led to an unnecessary confrontation and a very poor outcome for local tenants.  Eventually, Camden has gone down the route of selling off some of its properties to pay for repairs, which in Brent were done through government grant.

Other authorities, such as Islington, formed an ALMO, took and spent the money, and then took the service back in-house.

It is interesting to read that the tenants at the Brent meeting actually prefer the Brent ALMO in some form.  Possibly BHP should consider a Co-operative model, of which there are many round the country, that would preserve the more democratic ethos that at least that meeting seemed to prefer.

Oddly, I can't seem to find much information through searching the Camden New Journal web site on what was a campaign that arguably swung the decision

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Grunwick Commemoration at the Brent Musuem

An exhibition commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Grunwick Strike has opened at the Brent Museum.  The strike took place in the mid-70s at what is now Grunwick Place, but was then a photo processing plant by Dollis Hill Tube in Willesden Green ward.



UPDATE

In answer to the comment below, no.  As a matter of fact, at least one of the people credited with organising this event is a very long standing member of Brent Labour Party.  I did however state that we need to be sure that the funds raised towards this cause went to a Grunwick commemoration, not anything else.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Gates into King Edward VII Park

I notice that new types of pedestrian gates have been fitted to King Edward VII park Willesden, although the vehicular access is unchanged.  Why is that?

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Brent Council Tax Freeze?

The next Brent Council Cabinet will be considering budget proposals.  As in previous years under Cllr Butt's leadership, there appears to have been fairly limited discussion of these within the Labour Group.  This is rather a failing since the Budget underlies all the Council's activities.

Just concentrating on the Council Tax issue for the moment.  The report, under paragraph 5.4 proposes to consult on the projected increases in 2017/18 and 2018/19.  Since the current proposals are for the maximum possible rise that can reasonably be obtained, that can only mean a potential limit to the rise or perhaps a freeze.  I have noted before that this effectively destroys the Council's finances in future years.  Cllr Muhammed Butt has in the past been a strong advocate of freezing the Council Tax, apart from for the very poorest in Brent, where he favoured one of the steepest Council Tax rises in London.  He was so intent on freezing Council Tax that he ignored a majority Labour Group vote on the issue.  I don't know if this was related to Cllr Mikey Pavey's resignation, but the members of the Labour Group will need to be on the look out that they are not ignored again. 

Monday, 17 October 2016

A Dumped Car in Kilburn

At the weekend I saw a dumped car outside the former RSPCA Animal War Memeroial Dispensary in South Kilburn.


I haven't seen one of those in Brent for years.  They used to be very common, but EU regulations promoting recycling and rising metal prices saw them disappear.  This one is blocking a disabled parking space so I hope it gets moved as quickly as possible.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Predictable Problems at Brent Community Libraries

I have been reading the recently available minutes of the last Brent Cabinet meeting.  They read like a group of people each of whom, is desperate not to say to say "no" to the Preston group but all of whom are at some level uneasily aware of the problems around fiduciary duty and asset of community value at the Preston Annex site. 

It is striking to see how some of the obvious trends coming to pass as I predicted.  I see that Mr Bromberg made a direct link between supposed peppercorn rents at allotments, and the use of a peppercorn rent at the Preston building.  I would have thought that the comparison between an allotment and a fairly substantial building is quite different.  I wasn't aware that allotments had peppercorn rents anymore.  My memory is that the allotment strategy introduced charging which the users certainly did not feel was negligible.  The new fees were part of the effort to control the ever rising waiting lists that we had identified, an effort that was successful

I also note that there is already an effort to spread whatever is done at Barham, and then at Preston to Kensal Rise.  These three buildings all have quite different circumstances of course, with Kensal Rise not having any Council involvement at all.  Nonetheless, it isn't hard to foresee that any deal for one group will lead numerous other groups to complain that they are not being treated in the same way. 

This situation is being obviously mismanaged by Cllr Butt and will lead to another Dollis Hill House saga, although in this case one spread across multiple sites all over the Borough.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Brent's Constant Library Growth Draws to a Close

Time to look at the half year figures for Brent Library Visits and Loans.  The most recent full year statistics are here

There were 1,204,502 visits in the half year up to the end of September 2016, and 532,754 issues.  That is growth of 0.4% in visits and zero growth in issues.  It therefore seems that the remarkable run of year on year growth of Brent libraries is about to end.  Possibly the full year figures will be lower this year.  While the first quarter was very strong thanks largely to the improvement at Willesden Library, the second quarter was much weaker and wiped out the gain earlier in the year. 

At some point this was inevitable, and it was hinted at in earlier reports.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Kensal Green Graffiti

I am glad to see that the graffiti I noticed some days ago at Kensal Green Tube station has been cleaned off. 


Friday, 7 October 2016

Cllr Mike Pavey Resigns

News reaches me that Cllr Mike Pavey has resigned from the Brent Council Executive, citing incompability with Cllr Butt.  It is highly unusual for councillors to resign from the Executive in this way.  The last example was Cllr Perrin in 2014, again because of incompatibility with Cllr Butt. I can't recall any such case before then.

Since becoming leader four and a bit years ago Cllr Butt has got through three Chief Executives, virtually the entire senior officer team, numerous members of the Executive, including three deputies, at least five political assistants, and half a dozen Labour Party organisers.  The recent report investigating his conduct remarked on the "evident animosity" between Cllr Butt and the London Labour Party.

As the Labour Group gathers for its Budget away day tomorrow, perhaps they should reflect on that.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Parks as a Statutory Service

I have just walked through King Edward VII park (Willesden), which was full of the stuff that you would expect on a sunny Sunday morning _ people playing football, dog walkers, joggers.  Some people think parks would be secured if they were made into a statutory service, like public libraries.  They feel this would safeguard parks against cuts in funding

In fact, as with libraries, I doubt that this would be the case.  So long as local authorities are seeing the kinds of cuts to total budgets that Labour areas are seeing, ways will have to be found to balance the budget.  Increasingly, making things more efficient is getting harder.  The only real way to safeguard such valued services is to increase the funding available to them. 

Friday, 30 September 2016

Your Own Bags

It is good to see that more people are carrying their own shopping bags.  This was exactly what the plastic bag charge was designed to achieve.  It is a small step in changing behaviour, but there is much further to go.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Declining Standards at Brent Council

Last week's Standards Committee led to no further action.  More surprising was the behaviour of the many councillors who apparently attended.  They are reported to have heckled the Committee as it went about its business.  I have verified that John Warren's account is more or less accurate.

Of course, we have seen poor behaviour at Brent Council meetings before, including the forced move of the meetings, but this is the first time that elected councillors have engaged in such wrecking tactics.  Ironicqally, it sounds as if the councillors breached the Code of Conduct at the Standards Committee itself.

It is a new low in Brent Council's decline as an institution.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

A Sorry Mess at Barham Trust

The Barham Trust minutes are now out and confirm what I had already heard, that the councillors on the committee weakly allowed Paul Lorber to browbeat them into giving him rent free space after he had previously agreed to pay rent on it. 

It is interesting that that Mr Philip Bromberg of the Preston Library group also spoke.  Of course he has no direct interest in the Barham site, but I have no doubt he will use the rent free access for a group at Barham to argue for rent free access for his group at Preston.  It would be greatly surprising if other groups don't argue for rent free arrangements for themselves in other buildings.  Thus, the Barham Trust Committee is setting up a situation where groups are given privileged access to Council buildings at taxpayers expense, and public services are cut further as a result. 

Any attempt to resist such pressures will be met with accusations of bias, and of course the number of groups that might make such a demand is practically limitless.  Indeed groups that currently pay the Council rent might well ask why they are doing so. 

The consequences of the decision are therefore considerably more extensive than just the Barham Trust, and likely to lead to political controversies in future. 

As well as being bad budgeting and bad politics, I suspect it is also bad law.  As a loss making Trust, cutting the Trust income without any indication that you are doing so for the objectives of the Trust probably puts the councillors in a dodgy position legally.

What a sorry mess.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Graffiti Returns to Kensal Green Tube

I am saddened to see that graffiti has reappeared above Kensal Green station.  Previously this stayed up for years before removal.  I hope it goes quicker this time.


Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Monitoring Community Libraries in Brent

One of the many problems thrown up by Cllr Butt's suggested of community libraries is the whole idea of monitoring.  Many people seem to think that Councils should just hand out money to worthy groups and assume that they use it widely.  Such an approach is long discredited as potentially leading to corruption or at least a waste of money.  There are dramatic cases, such as Kids Company, where this was disastrous on a grand scale.

A more modern approach is to demand some kind of monitoring.  In Brent, these are normally called Service Level Agreements, and are effectively contracts.  Money is paid to a group in return for certain objectives being achieved.

My experience of dealing with the various library groups during the Libraries Transformation Project is that this kind of thinking came as a great shock to them.  One of the grounds of their unsuccessful legal challenge to the Council was that they had no idea that this sort of thing might be expected, an idea that the Judge rejected.  In his words (paragraph 91):

"I am satisfied that any group wishing to run a library, whether at its own expense and even more so if at public expense to some degree, should have realised that its experience and financial capability was an issue to be addressed in the consultation process. I do not think that any failing on the part of proposers to know what case they had to meet can fairly be laid at the door of the Council."

My experience of dealing with the library groups in Brent is that they are very dismissive of any such monitoring, financial or otherwise.  I have repeatedly heard them dismiss visit numbers as a criterion, book issues and even the view of library users.  I have never heard any of the groups' suggest alternative measures.  I suspect this is because volunteer libraries just don't seem to perform well on any of the measures that normal public libraries regard as standard.

UPDATE

I have responded to the comment below here.  

Monday, 19 September 2016

More Library Bumbling by Butt

I mentioned on Saturday the potential danger of a "community library strategy".  This is the sad, but predictable, result of the way Cllr Butt has been stringing the Preston group along for years.  Indeed, it my just be yet another stage.

What the Preston group really want is to be given the Preston Annexe for free.  As I have explained, that is contrary to the Council's fiduciary duty, and is now made even less possible as a result of its Asset of Community Value status.  Cllr Butt probably doesn't care about either of those in themselves, but I suspect he would be worried about getting caught disregarding them.

There is a fundamental mismatch between the expectations that Cllr Butt encourages and what Brent Council can legally deliver.

The greater danger from his various manoeuvrings is that a Dollis Hill House type situation arises, where huge amounts of officer time and money are spent fruitlessly, and distracting from the challenging but successful job Brent libraries are doing in improving services despite budget cuts.  In other cases elsewhere in the country, this has resulted in the Council staff feeling that they are being forced to devote inordinate time to advising volunteers on how to run services, and the voluntary group resenting what they perceive to be a lack of support.  Indeed many people think that volunteer libraries just can't be made to work as a long term solution.

Certainly, when the Council considered the idea of this kind of "Big Society" approach, it not only decided none of the solutions were viable (a decision that Cllr Butt endorsed at the time), it was actually sued by the groups concerned

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Butt Complaint

The complaint into Cllr Butt breaching the Local Government Code of Conduct has been published.  The full investigation can be found here. The rep[ort to the Standards Committee is here

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Future Warning for Brent Libraries

A little noticed part of the Cabinet papers on Tuesday was the report on library performance.  It mentions the favourable ratings that users give Brent Libraries, but warns that stock issues have been a problem.  As I have mentioned before, there seems to be quite a mismatch between rising visit numbers and the much more limited rise in issues.  These should not obscure the general story of improvement.

In my view, this improvement is put at risk by Cllr Butt's latest expedient of trying to get various groups to write a "community libraries strategy". 

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Boundary Gerrymander

The Kilburn Times covers the Tory gerrymander on boundaries today.  Part of the absurdity of this process is that the electorate has gained roughly two million voters since the freeze date, so the supposed gain in equality is fictional in any case.  Let us hope that a proper, less politically partisan review will be put in place soon.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Dawn Finch Warning on Volunteers

Dawn Finch, of CILIP, gives a warning about relying on volunteers to deliver public services here.  It takes as view based very much on overworked volunteers, but I think there is also a great danger of false expectations of support from hard pressed local authorities, and a general under-estimation of how hard it can be to run a public service.  The shift from initial enthusiasm to rapidly dwindling numbers is also noteworthy.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Planning U-Turn

I see from the previous Scrutiny Committee that Brent Council is now neeing to take on more planning officers to deal with both developing a single Local Plan and the planning needs around Old Oak Common.  This is shortly after drastically reducing planning staff to cut costs.  This is not the kind of thing that should happen in a well run organisation.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

More on ACV Status

Incidentally following my comment yesterday about how ACV status actually forces a current owner to put a building up for sale, it is interesting to see that Brent Council's ACV listing shows that the former Kensal Rise Library would have been in its moratorium period at the moment (had that been triggered). 

In this case, a private owner is leasing the building, and appears to be happy to lease it to FKRL, so there should be no complication.  Brent Council, the owner of the former Preston Library building, is a public authority and therefore subject to much more onerous requirements. 

Friday, 9 September 2016

ACV Status and the Former Library at Preston

I promised yesterday to cover the complications from the former Preston Library's status as an asset of community value.  This is a widely misunderstood status, which people seem to seek to gain a measure of protection for a building, but which does not really carry such protection.  I tried to explain this back when the application was made. 

The list of such assets in Brent is an odd one.  The presence of the Stonebridge Adventure Playground, since demolished, emphasizes that being listed by no means guarantees preservation.  I have always felt rather sad about the Playground as I think that had it been treated differently, at least some of its usefulness and value could have been preserved.  Unfortunately, I think that didn't happen because things like the asset listing distracted from the main point.

The curious thing about Preston Library as was is that the group that called for its listing also wants Brent Council to give it to them without marketing it in any way.  That is not a realistic prospect for other reasons, but the ACV listing makes it even less so.

If Brent Council goes for its preferred option of building 19 units on the site, those will automatically not have ACV status because the legislation does not allow ACV status for residential property.  Incidentally, there would be no delay in building from the ACV status, because the six month delay only kicks in under change of ownership.  Brent Council can demolish the existing building and build on the site without changing ownership.  They would need planning permission to do this, but Brent has accorded little weight to ACV status in previous decisions so it is not much of a factor.

There is then the question of what to do with the community space.  Here the ACV status becomes relevant as the law forced the Council to put it on the market for any community group to make a bid.  That would include say local religious organisations, people wanting to start free schools, or indeed anyone who can get 21 registered electors in Brent and the neighbouring authorities to say they want to bid.  That could be a lot of different groups, and they might very well out bid the original group. 

Incidentally, the building's recent use as a school also means the Education Secretary might try to hand it over to a free school.


Thursday, 8 September 2016

Preston Library Building Returns

The fate of the former Preston Library building is on the agenda of Brent Council's next Cabinet.  Officer preference is to buy the adjacent plot and use the site for housing, which would be eminently sensible.  This does, however, run into objections from the former Preston Library group who have been demanding the building be handed over to them.

This was a demand over a long period of time with which Cllr Muhammed Butt has played along.  At times the group has been given a more realistic assessment, which they have preferred not to believe.  Given that they have repeatedly been given mixed messages, it is perhaps not surprising that they preferred the one that was closer to their own views.  It was summed up in an "offer" made shortly before polling day in 2014.

The main problem with this offer is that it cannot be reconciled with Brent Council's fiduciary duty, as I have pointed out before

The planned redevelopment includes a community space (D1 class), which the Preston group wants to be handed to it for free.  Again this would be in breach of the Council's duty, and the situation is further complicated by the building's status as an asset of community value, which I shall deal with in a different post.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Standards Delay at Brent Council

I wonder what happened to the Standards Committee investigation into Cllr Muhammed Butt?  The Brent Council web site seems to shows that the next Standards Committee meeting has been cancelled.  Presumably, the investigator is taking longer than he hoped.  I do hope this does not drag on like the Bertha Joseph case. The delay in that case was sharply criticised by the appeal tribunal. 

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Brent Council Debt Recovery

The next Brent Council Cabinet has an interesting paper on debt collection.  This is a difficult area, requiring a balance between collecting what is due to the tax payer with an understanding of the needs of what can be vulnerable debtors. 

I must say I am shocked at the sheer level of the debts _ £90 million, and surprised at the modest recovery target of only £1 million.  the principles of the new policy sound commonsensical.  It is also interesting that the Council feels taking the service in-house may be a more efficient way of doing things.  It is also interesting to read that an inhouse service might be more humane in its operations.

Monday, 5 September 2016

More on the Paul Lorber Rip-off

Returning to Paul Lorber's attempted rip-off of Brent Council taxpayers, I notice that one of his justifications for refusing to pay rent for a year is that the fitting out of the former Community Lounge will be expensive.  Of course, this is something he should, and probably did, think about before he put his bid in October last year

I note, however, that Martin Francis reports that Paul Lorber is contemplating a further bid to take over the "Card Room".  This seems to make nonsense of his pleading poverty in doing up the former Community Lounge, since the Card Room is a much more formidable undertaking. 

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Cllr Butt Stakes Our Money on His Reputation

Back when Cllr Muhammed Butt first became Council Leader, he made a number of suggestions that he intended to be more open and democratic than his immediate predecessor.  In practice, I think he has been very much the opposite, not least in his odd practices with Cara Davani and other senior officers.  A striking example comes in this week's Cabinet papers relating to Council finances. 

With very little publicity either inside or outside the Labour Party, he is proposing that powers to fix the revenue support grant simply be delegated to himself and the Chief Executive.  This would apply to the grant up to 2019/20, and is a major decision.  Delegating the decision in this way demands a great deal of faith in two people, and I suspect the acknowledged reputational damage that the Council admits it has suffered under Cllr Butt's leadership means that faith is not widely shared. 

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Paul Lorber Manoeuvres over Barham Park Building

Barham Trust has now published its agenda for the 6 September, and as I had suspected, Paul Lorber is aiming for a shake down of the taxpayer. 

I was critical of the original decision to award the lease to Paul Lorber in October 2015, and have been quizzical at the failure to conclude an agreement since.  It now seems that Pauk Lorber's organisation is trying to get out of the deal it bid for.  The agenda reminds us that under the terms of the bid that the "Friends of Barham Library" were awarded the lease:

"The marketing particulars did not offer a rent free period.  Nor did the bid submitted by FoBL propose a rent free period for the first year of the term of the lease."

These were the terms under which Paul Lorber was bidding against a rival organisation at the time.  Subsequently, the report explains:



"Subsequently, during the lease document preparation process, the FoBL requested a rent free period.  The FoBL argued that the Vets had been offered a 12 month rent free period and therefore in the interests of fairness they should be offered the same terms.  The FoBL also relied upon the fact that in order for them to operate their library services they would need to incur substantial fitting out costs."

In other words, Paul Lorber suddenly introduced a major variation on the terms he had previously agreed, once he knew the rival bidder was safely out the way.  I find it easy to suspect that this was his intention at the time of the original bid.  The report goes on:


"Consistent with the Trust Committee’s decision, the Heads of Terms prepared by the Council and dated 19 January 2016, and which the FoBL agreed, did not include a rent free period.  However, a
draft lease prepared by the Council in March of this year inadvertently included a 12 month rent free
period."

Thus, the FoBL, which is effectively Paul Lorber, agreed again the rent in January, having also agreed to it in October.  The March draft somehow or other included a variation which had no authority from the elected councillors either as councillor or as corporate Trustee.  Those familiar with Paul Lorber's way of doing things will not be surprised to learn that this led him to make a bold and unresonable claim:

"According to the FoBL the inclusion of a rent free period was not a mistake.  They argue that they asked for it and it appeared in the lease and therefore it has been agreed and they have relied upon it in good faith and to their detriment ever since."

 The report then goes to some pains to explain that the officers could not vary the terms without going back to committee, and that leases only become binding when both sides agree them.  I think this understanding is widely understood by most people, including Paul Lorber and he is just trying it on in order to get money out of the tax payer.

In doing so, he has confirmed my original suspicion that he is not to be trusted.  The Committee now has a choice between demanding that he sign the lease on the terms agreed, or concluding that he has acted in bad faith, and is not an acceptable partner for the Council to negotiate with.  I would have thought that the earlier bidder, who agreed to pay the rent provided, might well have a case for the Council to rerun the bidding process.