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Friday, 11 August 2017

Councillors Paying Council Tax

Brent Labour Party has now selected all its Council candidates for next year's elections.  I imagine the other parties are in the process of doing the same.  Among other things, they may wish to consider the rules on disclosing non-payment of Council Tax.  Essentially, councillors do not have the privacy a member of the public might expect, which may come as a shock to some.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Community Land Trusts

Following the news that Wembley appears to be subjected entirely to market forces, forces that have demonstrably failed to meet housing needs in the UK over decades, I though it might be useful to look at an example of a community land trust here.  The details of this scheme may not readily translate to Brent, but it is the sort of thing a progressive Council might be expected to promote.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Grade II listing for Willesden Jewish Cemetery

Buildings in the Willesden Jewish Cemetery have been given grade II listing in the 150th year of the United Synagogue.  It follows an earlier grant for the cemetery.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Brent Conservatives Renew Controversial Endorsement

Martin Francis tells us that Bertha Joseph is selected as a Conservative candidate in Brondesbury.  Presumably he has good sources in the Tory Party.

Bertha Joseph was elected as a member of the Brent Labour Group in 2006, but defected to the Tories in 2007 on the grounds that she had not been invited to the Queen's Garden Party at Buckingham Palace.  She subsequently found herself accused of misdirecting charitable donations to a children's hospice to her own use, a view that was upheld first by Brent's Standards Committee and then by an appeal Tribunal.  The Tribunal's comments struck me at the time as pretty damning.  The complaint was made by the late Rocky Fernandez, a convicted fraudster with whom she had a close association which subsequently turned sour.

She was elevated by Boris Johnson to an important post on the London and Emergency Fire Planning Authority (LFEPA) in order to vote through cuts to the London Fire Service.  Shortly after voting through the cuts, she resigned.  Subsequently, the Tories withdrew their endorsement of her in the 2010 election.  Her candidature as an independent in that election proved unsuccessful.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Pushing Brent Residents Away

Martin Francis has picked up on a government grant for build for rent properties in Wembley.  None of the units appear to be "affordable", let alone socially rented.  The Conservative minister Alok Sharma is quoted as approving this scheme.  Cllr Muhammed Butt, normally keen on publicity, does not seem to appear in the coverage I have seen.

Of course, now that the Council has delivered planning permission to the developers as well as money for substantial public realm improvements, Brent Council has no real leverage in trying to get anything else.  The Council appears to have consigned itself to irrelevance.

The minister and the developer meanwhile are looking forward to a massive expansion in car parking in the Wembley area.  This threatens to reverse the gains made in recent years in air quality, worsen traffic congestion which is increasing anyway because of Spurs and return the area to the failed car dependent model that made the area require regeneration in the first place.

When the Stadium was first up for rebuilding, Brent Council (under Paul Daisley's leadership) successfully argued for more than £100 million of public transport improvements to deliver a public transport venue.  It appears his successor has failed even to get a seat at the table.

Meanwhile Polly Toynbee suggests that Brent loses £178 per week for each family in B&B.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Willesden Junction Expansion

One possible development worth keeping an eye is a possible expansion of Willesden Junction Station.  I have argued the importance of this for years.  However, one shouldn't get too carried away with the present study as these kind of proposals take many years before anything gets built, if indeed they go forward at all.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Leaseholder Bills from Brent Council

I am concerned at the political gesture of the overhasty decision to spend £10 million on fire safety at Brent housing properties without securing any money from the government, or even knowing what the money will go towards.  In the end it will come from the pockets of the tenants and one other group of people.

The other group are the leaseholders.  These will be people who have either bought through the Right to Buy or the open market.  Many of them may well be of modest means, but be about to be hit with a substantial bill with very little warning.  Although the government does warn of these sort of dangers, not everyone is always aware of them, and Brent's current splurge will have come completely out of the blue.  I hope the Council arranges a generous payment plan for those who struggle to meet such an unexpected cost.

Incidentally, I have been told that when full Council voted this spend through only one Councillor declared a close relationship with anyone living in a block.  That is not as bad as the Leader of Kensington and Chelsea, but it does suggest to me that the councillors probably need some education about how Brent housing works. 

Thursday, 3 August 2017

A Close Run Thing

This morning there is a meeting of the Alcohol and Licensing Committee.  This will give Cllr Sabina Khan, a new appointee to that committee, a chance to attend.  This is fortunate as it will be her first official attendance of a Council event since 14 February, which brings her perilously close to being absent from any events for six months.  Any Councillor who does not attend a Council event in their official capacity for six months automatically forfeits their seat and forces a by election (which costs the taxpayer about £20k to £25k).

Brent has come too close for comfort on this in more than one case.  While it is certainly true that councillors should be, and I am sure are, doing many things outside these "official" duties it is not a good sign that several councillors have come so close to the wire without any special reason. 

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

EU Negotiation

The sheer indiscipline of the Cabinet over the past couple of weeks shows how dysfunctional our "strong and stable" government has become.  How on earth are the UK negotiators, whether male or female, supposed to negotiate when they don't even know what outcome they are trying to negotiate?  The government surely needs to decide what its objectives before any meaningful progress can be made.

Manor Park Road Again

The Manor Park Road development has returned I see.  I regretted the withdrawal of the former proposal.  While the principle of developing this site remains good, it is disappointing to find the affordability of the units reduced.

Monday, 31 July 2017

Is Brent Council Getting a Good Deal from Quintain?

Right at the end of last week's Brent Council Cabinet there is a document recommending a £17.8 million spend on the public realm around Brent Civic Centre.  That is a lot of money by any standard. 

I have long been an advocate of a high quality public realm around the Civic Centre, and Wembley Library in particular, so you might think I would simply welcome this.  In fact I have already welcomed the existing surroundings.  The burden of the changes would partly fall on the Council and partly on Quintain, and it leaves me wondering whether the Council is getting the best possible deal.

I am not not reassured by the opacity of Quintain's relationship with the Council, or what often strike me as the perverse judgements of Cllr Muhammed Butt in planning matters, or the degree to which the Planning Committee is independent of the Council Leader's influence.  The days when a Council Leader was subject to an investigation for a (false) accusation that she was seeking to influence a planning decision appear to be far behind us. 

The contribution to Quintain is phrased as being in return for concessions, but it is not clear what these are or why Brent wants to change its previous policies.  In the past, there have been strong pressures for more parking spaces near the Civic Centre, with little apparent understanding that urban planners regard the provision of more spaces as just generating more car use and therefore more pressure for parking spaces.  I am really not at all clear that the current political leadership of Brent Council is sophisticated enough to negotiate with a major company such as Quintain

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Brent Chief Executive on Housing Investment

Further to yesterday's post, the Chief Executive's letter makes clear the difficult state of housing finance in Brent.  It correctly blames certain government policies such as the central fixing of rents and the "high value void" sell off policy as undermining the finances that maintain the condition of Council Housing, but the chances of getting any money from central government have simply been thrown away.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Funding and Fire Safety

Brent Council is currently rushing through £10 million of spend on "fire safety" without knowing what it is going to be spent on.  A report was brought before the Cabinet on 24 July without the normal notice period of three/four months on the pretext that the whole thing is of the utmost urgency.  This recommends a programme to specify the works.

One would have thought specifying the work that needs to be done should precede spending the money, but the Council has already approved the spend at full Council.  That report says that the £10 million is equivalent to all the fire safety spend for Brent Council's dwindling housing stock over the past five years.  If it is really the case that that amount needs to be spent now, there must be a serious backlog that has been allowed to build up.  If so, councillors should be asking why such a backlog has built up and whether people have been put at risk. 

The chances of ever recovering this money from central government are negligible because the government has a default that Council's should rely on their own resources.  The DCLG web site states"The government’s expectation is that, as landlords, local authorities and housing associations will fund measures designed to make a building fire safe, and will draw on their own resources to do so."
Brent's decision to spend the money has effectively undermined any effort to lobby central government.

That means the money will come from the tenants either in higher rents, or via cut back in investment.  Really something that should not have been rushed through as a panic measure.  More detail on how local authority housing finance works can be found on the Red Brick Blog

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Employment Tribunal Victory

Yesterday's victory for Unison on Employment Tribunal Fees is a huge victory in preventing victimisation of people.  Amidst so much gloom it provides welcome relief to everyone except unscrupulous employers.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Returning to Controlled Parking Zones

I mentioned a hardy perennial policy proposal up at the last Brent Cabinet meeting, but not an equally hoary example, controlled parking zones.  These have been effectively frozen for several years, but the new report recommends either changing the existing CPZs or reintroducing new ones.

Significantly no one seems to advocate their abolition. 

More CPZs are likely to spread across the Borough over the next few years.  Partly, this will be incremental, partly down to new developments particularly in Brent Cross and Colindale, and partly down to what I would say was a seriously misjudged decision to expand operating hours at Wembley Stadium

Monday, 24 July 2017

Gap in the HRA

Tonight Brent Council's Cabinet meets and discusses future financial planning.  Among the concerns are the Housing Revenue Account (HRA), which is essentially the money related to Council properties.  Income is likely to go down as the government has prescribed a rent reduction and the number of properties is dwindling. 

As far as I can see the document pays no attention to the planned enormous increase in fire safety spending (up by 400%).  Given the limit on rents, this increase is going to force a reduction in general repairs, and or any new build and this should be acknowledged in forward planning.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

SME Task Group

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

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

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Returning to a Zombie Proposal, Bulky Item Collections

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

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

Mary Turner

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

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Getting it Badly Wrong

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Tony Blair and Brexit

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

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Carillion Withdrawing from Libraries?

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

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

Post Grenfell Housing Spending

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 14 July 2017

Why was 2017 Election Turnout so High?

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

One might ask how it happened.

I can think of three possible scenarios.

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

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Age and Class

Seema Malhotra MP has recently been arguing that, in explaining the last General Election result, age is becoming more important and class less so.  This view has a lot to be said for it.  Labour support has gone up among ABs, although the Tories retain an edge.  Equally Tory support has risen among DEs although Labour retains its traditional lead.

However, it is also possible to see age as an expression of a sort class.  Older voters are more likely to be home owners, who tend to be more Conservative.  They are also more likely to be private landlords, albeit on a modest scale.  Younger voters, meanwhile, are more likely to be trapped in "generation rent" where the combination of the "gig economy" and very high rent and service costs for housing combine to put them in a position where they can't save enough for a deposit or demonstrate a regular enough income to get a mortgage.

Public policy is often designed to appeal to either renters or to owner occupiers.  Landlords may well have policy preferences that directly opposed to renters.  Below is a chart I have plagiarised adapted from some recent House of Commons Library research.  It shows those who have paid off their mortgages (also most likely to be private landlords I suspect) are the most pro-Tory group, whereas renters have a strong Labour bias.



This is just one more aspect of what was a very confusing and hard to understand election result.  

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

The Dangers of Political Hubris

The reasons behind the General Election result are still wide open, but many people in the Labour Party seem to think it was a victory.  This is only true if you think of it as a Dunkirk-like avoidence of what the time the General Election was called looked set to be a complete disaster. 

One perfectly plausible way to look at it is as a warning around political hubris.  May thought she was guaranteed an enhanced majority.  She therefore (a) made the whole election as personalised on herself as possible (b) Stripped the Tory manifesto of key "offers" to vital groups of voters (like the Triple lock for pensioners) so as not to bind her hands in the future (c) Ran a lacklustre campaign that pretty much failed to make a positive case on the assumption that many voters would feel they had nowhere else to go.

The results were not to her liking, and have left people speculating about when she is going to go.

The Labour Party seems to me to be in danger of now throwing away its chances of turning its escape into a victory by:

(a) Assuming it is going to be easy to get the 60 odd seats it needs to win an overall majority, when some of those seats actually have enhanced Tory majorities and are therefore harder to win.
(b) Assuming that a majority can achieved with a "one more heave" approach (in the elegant term of the October 1974 Liberal campaign).  I would argue that once the Labour Party is once again seen as a possible "government in waiting" it will be subject to much greater scrutiny over whether it can pay for its promises, what its stance on the European Union is, and whether it can be trusted with the UK's security.
(c) Assuming that it can afford a lapse into internal faction fighting as relieved Corbynistas look to conduct witch hunts against specific MPs who they feel have failed to toe the line, when it is something of a cliche that divided parties put off the electorate.  Indeed this is all the more surprising given that many Corbyn supporters have argued that it was the obvious disagreement between the MPs and Jeremy Corbyn that underlay the Labour Party's awful opinion poll ratings up the General Election. 

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

CNJ on Chalcots Estate

The Camden New Journal is going to town with an investigation into the evacuation of the Chalcots estate, including querying the role of PFI in refurbishing the Towers.  It is worth recalling that the PFI only became necessary because the "Decent Homes" money was turned down as part of the row rejecting ALMO status, a row I would see as a tragedy of misinformation.

The PFI scheme was then backed by, notably, Glenda Jackson who saw it as the only remaining way to secure decent housing for her constituents.  The CNJ is now querying whether more money should have been committed although a standard (and I think accurate) complaint about PFIs in general is that they offer poor value for money.  The Camden PFI was initially rejected for this very reason.

I have sympathy for decision makers who find themselves making these choices and then find themselves retrospectively attacked by the same people who criticised the original deal for opposite reasons.  Whilst it is still not public exactly why Camden took the dramatic decision to evacuate, it really does feel like a cheap shot to be constantly hostile but on widely differing grounds.  It is worth recalling that as far as is publicly known there may have been issue with the capital works at all.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Council Tax and Business Rates

The bleak future of local government finance is laid for the Scrutiny Committee in a recent presentation.  The presentation will go forward tomorrow.

Among the points I found of interest were the growing relative importance of Council Tax as government grant is phased out.  Those authorities who chose to freeze, or even cut, Council Tax will find that they can no longer recover that revenue.  It is permanently lost because there is an effective cap on percentage increases, now about 4%.  I have explained this trend before

The second thing that strikes me is the idea of London pool for business rates, which sounds attractive but hard to make work in practice.  I would expect an on the ball administration to be out in front on this issue, explaining it and trying to create support for it.  Sadly, Cllr Muhammed Butt does not seem to have spotted the importance of this.  Let us hope he does in so time.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Closing Down Shisha Bars

Tom Miller is frustratingly vague in saying what powers he needs against Shisha bars.  These  have been a nuisance in Brent for years.  In some cases that I am aware of the owners have even been threatening towards their neighbours.  Brent have developed a planning regime unwelcoming to shisha bars, but what more needs to be done?

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Job Centre Merger

The DWP has a plan to consolidate its job centres on one site.  Brent Council is quoted in criticism in the story despite the fact that the Council followed a similar logic in relation to its own revenue and benefit department.  When that body temporarily housed an office at Harlesden Job Centre, it found it much under used.  The planned facility at Willesden Library was abandoned for a similar reason.  

The argument is that as more and more people are active online for all sorts of reasons, they no longer need the (more expensive) face to face access.

If Brent Council really feels this logic does not hold, it would be better advised to offer some of its buildings to offer temporary "pop up" access.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Return to Mitre Bridge

Work is proceeding on Mitre Bridge on Scrubs Lane, which is a pain for those of us who regularly use that route.  In the longer term however, strengthening the bridge offers the prospect of reduced traffic through the centre of Harlesden as vehicles can go through Park Royal instead.  It also makes it easier for businesses on the Hythe Road estate which I know are annoyed by the delays they experience going through the Town Centre. 

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Royal Oak Re-opened

I am glad to see that the Royal Oak is operating again after its closure earlier in the year.  Having good venues is really important to the success of Harlesden Town Centre as a whole.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Planning Gain Transparency

I have been somewhat critical of Brent Council's governance recently, so it is good to name an area where it has become more transparent and accountable.  This is is in terms of the distribution of s106 funds (or planning gain).  These are the monies paid by developers to offset various negative impacts from development, and they used to be shrouded in mystery.  The listing of projects in a public document with the reasons for them is a big improvement.  

I notice that there are a number of small sums allocated to limiting traffic problems in Tokyngton, but I doubt whether they will be enough to offset the effect of the intensification of the use of Wembley Stadium.  This is an issue that the Council will be forced to return to long after the councillors behind that controversial decision are gone. 

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Difficulties of Local Government

Yesterday's post on the failures at Kensington Council shouldn't be taken as an indication that I underestimate the difficulties that councillors face.  On the contrary I think they are much greater than many councillors and MPs realise, not least in the possibility of legal action

All the more reason for the systems to be robust and the personnel to be skilled at what they have to do. 

Saturday, 1 July 2017

When Councils Collapse

The extraordinary failure of Kensington Council regarding Grenfell Tower has become symbolic of a much wider failure of the political system and rightly so.  Partly this is down to the horror of the events, partly down to the symbolism of the burnt out tower still louring over West London.

Even government ministers seem to have belatedly understood that the failure of Kensington Council is linked to their own policies.  As Karen Buck points out, the kind of budget cuts that local government has endured were bound to reduce its capacity.  This was predictable and predicted.  Kensington Council appears to have been in the grip of what until recently was a one party Tory state that regarded the poor as irrelevant or as a group to be wiped out from "desirable" areas and warehoused in some vaguely defined place far away.

There are now reports that suggest that this ideology directly impacted decisions over Grenfell Tower in a way that may have helped lay the groundwork for the disaster.  This is an ideology that confuses the cheapest price with value for money. 

This failure of competence has been accompanied by a failure of accountability.  The Leader of Kensington Council has finally resigned, but only after trying to sacrifice his Chief Executive instead, and only after further possibly unlawful attempts to block access to public meetings.  The sheer scale of the dysfunction has led to calls for Commissioners to be appointed to run what will be seen as the UK's ultimately failed Council.

What Does All this Mean for Brent Council?
It would be comforting to think that Kensington is uniquely bad, but I fear such a view is far too complacent.  Just as Kensington has been subject to significant cuts so has Brent.  I think it probable that Brent has probably been more effective in trying to maintain its financial resilience than Kensington, where apparently the Tory councillors felt building up a huge reserve whilst reducing the tax base of the authority was a pretty snazzy idea.

Brent took a number of tough decisions to limit spending in the 2010-2014 period, as well as a number of efforts to maximise revenues.  The big exception was Council Tax, which largely at the insistence of Cllr Muhammed Butt was frozen (except for very poor people).  This has done long term damage to the finances of the Council and pushed it into more cuts and relying more on expedients to keep its finances afloat.

Despite this, I wonder whether Brent Council still has the ability to react swiftly to disasters as it did when the Tornado struck Kensal Rise.

The second question that strikes me about Kensington is the refusal to be accountable or to engage with the public.  Decisions appear to have been made away from public view, and councillors appear to have been unwilling to face the public.  Within the Kensington Tory group, no one seems to have challenged the Leader's behaviour.  It apparently took pressure from Downing Street to make him resign.  The end result has been deeply damaging for the long term reputation of Kensington Council, and probably the personal reputations of the councillors who have failed to speak out.  I wish I had confidence that councillors in Brent effectively question decisions made in  their name, but I can't say that I do, and one day that may come back to haunt them.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Stripping Cladding from Elizabeth House in Brent

Media reports have claimed that cladding will be stripped from Elizabeth House in Wembley.  The Housing Association in charge, Octavia House, does not seem to support this.  In a press release yesterday Octavia stresses that Elizabeth House has been approved as safe.

With so many people worried, it is important not to misinform.

Brent now has a site for updates on housing and fire risk here.

Fall Out from Grenfell Tower

The Grenfell Tower fire looks as if it is going to become a major crisis, with several stages still to go.  The first stage affected blocks which had a similar cladding to the one in Kensington.  There seem to be few of those around which may be another indication that Kensington has not managed its housing well.

The DCLG then called for samples of the outer skin of the cladding (not the insulation, which is the bulk of it.  In particular DCLG was concerned about Aluminium Composite Material (ACM), which is two thin aluminium sheets with a filler in the middle.  I understand that most and perhaps all of these are failing a combustibility test.  This is leading to it being taken off a number of buildings.  If it turns out that a lot of buildings have this material there may be a real bottleneck in supplies of alternative cladding leading to delays in recladding and probably much higher prices for cladding.

Meanwhile, the Chalcots estate in Camden is being evacuated.  From the reports, it is not clear whether that is because of the cladding or not.  However, if this kind of evacuation becomes widespread it will lead to a crisis in temporary accommodation as demand outstrips supply.

At present the problem has had most publicity in Council Housing, but I assume Housing Associations and the private sector are carrying out similar checks.  Given that ACM has been a standard material for a decade, there may well be a number of buildings here and elsewhere that may be regarded as risky.

In a sense, this crisis can be seen as positive.  If the residents of the Chalcot estate were at risk, at least that is now being dealt with before disaster strikes, but it looks like a huge problem.

UPDATE

Media reports now cite Brent as one of the authorities where the wrong type of cladding has been found.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Income Generation and Libraries

The Libraries Task force has been looking at income generation for libraries.  This should be of great interest to Brent, as Willesden Library was intended to run as a self funding building.  Incidentally, one of the people quoted is none other than Sue McKenzie, the former head of Brent Libraries.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Preston Library Redevelopment

Brent Council's plans to redevelop the former Preston Library site for housing appear to be proceeding.  Consultation on the proposal closed back in early May just as the General Election began, so I imagine it will be coming back to the Council Cabinet before very long.

The consultation mentions the Council's obligation to achieve best value.  As I have pointed out before, this is made a bit more complicated by ACV status.  Everyone concerned would be much better served if they just faced up to these issues honestly

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Grenfell Tower and Brent Council

There still appears to be a lot of contradictory information going about in the wake of the Grenfell fire, such as whether the non fire retardant cladding is banned on UK buildings or not.  Brent Council appears not to be immune from this confusion, telling the Guardian in a story just after midnight last night that it was "were unable to say if they had carried out any inspections or even how many tower blocks they had," whilst telling the Kilburn Times three days before that checks were under way. 

This kind of contradiction will not put people's minds at rest.

I also notice that Brent Council is sticking to a line that the cladding used in Brent tower blocks is "compliant" with UK building regulations.  Until Philip Hammond's comments this morning I thought "compliant" meant that they could be made partly of plastic unlike tall buildings in Germany and the USA.  Brent Council really needs to get its messaging more together if it it is not going to make things worse.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Brent Council and Community Asset Privatisation

Whilst I was pre-occupied with the election campaign it seems Brent Council has changed its Community Asset Transfer policy, from being broadly in favour of transfers to reverting to its more established practice of putting things out to market.  I am more comfortable with new (and older) approach.

However well intentioned, transferring assets to groups at below market rates always looks dangerously close to favouritism and patronage.  There are far more potentially deserving groups out there than can possibly benefit from this form of largesse.  On what basis does the Council decide who to support?  There is also an automatic possibility that any decision to favour a particular group can be seen as bias towards a particular ethnicity, religion, area and so on. 

Far better to apply the same rules to everyone equally.

It does, however, leave potential for considerable embarrassment for politicians who appear to have made promises they can't keep to particular groups.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Brent Energy Business Plan

An area I had rather lost sight of during the General Election is Brent's energy plans.  There is now a steering group to help develop energy projects in the Borough, which is meeting tonight.  The group appears to be officer led and technocratic, which is a pity, but at least the Borough is taking the potential of the area seriously.

To some extent is rolls up long standing schemes for district heating into a new framework, but it also looks like it might take a much broader approach than hitherto. Hopefully, this will have a significant effect on carbon emissions, although I imagine revenue is a powerful motivator.

More detail can be found in the Energy Business Plan.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

General Election of Losers

A long hiatus since my last post as I have been fully occupied with what has turned out to be the most surprising election I can recall, and election totally dominated by losers.

The main loser appears to be Theresa May, who managed to change the question the voters faced from "Who would form the best government?" to "Do you approve/disapprove of the Conservative Party?".  That second question is a far tougher ask just being better than the alternatives.  May managed to get the answer no by pushing for a hard Brexit that many people don't want, a robotic failure to go beyond empty slogans, a track record of failure in office and a suicidal attack on the key group that has supported the Tories, older voters.  As a result she has lost her majority and her personal authority.  I imagine she won't be in Downing Street much longer.

The Labour Party feels dangerously buoyant despite its third General Election defeat in a row.  Jeremy Corbyn successfully changed the Overton window so that mere survival counts as a kind of victory.  To be fair, he has also managed to get some extra seats by bringing in people who hadn't voted before as well as ex-Greens and Lib Dems.  I wonder, however, how sustainable this will be.  The more credible a Labour majority appears, the more scrutiny the Labour Party will get, and the more likely it becomes that people will demand answers on how to pay for things that they simply didn't this time round.  Effectively, he was able to get people to vote for a pressure group this time.  Next time he may well be asked questions that Ed Miliband and Ed Balls faced as a possible alternative government.  That is a far tougher bar.

The SNP also lost badly both to the Tories and to Labour, which will surprise some of my English colleagues who have effectively written off Labour's hopes in Scotland.

Even the DUP may find that their position is perilous, as they find themselves in the Big League with no sign they are prepared for it.  They are a firmly pro-Brexit Party that is hostile to one of the most obvious consequences of Brexit, a harder border with areas outside the UK, including the Irish Republic.

In time the complexities of that position may well lead to a greater interest in retaining membership of the Single Market, and perhaps the UK not leaving the EU at all. 

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Is Brent Council Too Bureaucratic?

Returning to a comment on this post about grants, which asks why Brent Council does not access the same funds that seem to have been tapped in the case of two of the Borough's "Community Library" projects leads me to a number of thoughts. 

The first barrier is a straightforward rules based one, that many grant giving bodies simply don't allow public bodies like Councils to bid for their grants.  The argument is that public authorities have there own methods of funding (Public Works Loan Board loans for example), and that they should use those rather than crowd out smaller voluntary groups from accessing funding that is inevitably outstripped by supply. 

As well as total prohibition, a number of grant giving bodies may impose rules that make it more difficult for a Council to get a grant.  For example, a Council may be expected to provide a higher level of match funding.  It may be required to meet criteria that sit uneasily with a public sector ethos (meeting certain religious restrictions for instance).

More interestingly perhaps is the possibility of a difference in culture, where the merits of a public sector approach have as their flipside certain demerits that make it harder to apply for grants.  What I would see as in many cases the advantages of a good public sector body can become disadvantages in this context.  Councils can be very risk averse, not moving until it is clear that a decision has been fully risk assessed, that it is legally grounded, openly debated and so on.  Councils in particular are subject to democratic oversight that should make them better decision makers, but can also slow them down and make them less flexible.  All this, depending on your viewpoint can be seen as overly bureaucratic or as properly respectful of public resources.

Voluntary groups can be more flexible in bending to a grant givers' conditions and more like social entrepreneurs in quickly targeting fleeting opportunities.  In an ideal world, I think an effective political leadership would join the advantages of both approaches.  However, it is worth remembering that the "social entrepreneur" role can also have pitfalls.  Risks can be ignored, objections unreasonably brushed aside and corners cut in ways that can lead to problems in either the short or the longer term. 

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The Rise and Fall of ALMOs

An interesting map of London ALMOs in 2009 and 2017 was published in Brent Council's last full Council agenda.  One can see at a glance that most of London had adopted ALMOs by 2009, but abandoned them later on.

The reason is money.

As I have explained before, the previous Labour government offered Councils lots of money to do up their Council housing if they agreed to an ALMO arrangement.  By 2017, this incentive had long since disappeared so the Councils just started taking the properties back in house.  It does show some of the demerits of that kind of policy making.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Harlesden Town Centre Plans

Following yesterday's post on Town Centres, I though it was worth looking at Harlesden Town Centre in particular. 

The most striking thing about the Council's latest document is that it does not seem to build on the Council's previous work effectively.  I suspect that this is linked to the turnover in Council staff being so enormous that no one linked to the extensive community discussions in 2010 is still around, so whoever wrote the new document just isn't really aware of what has gone on before.  This is a pity as it probably involves rewriting stuff that has been written before.  For example, there is no reference in the new document to the Harlesden Town Charter and its objectives.

Once again the absence of Harlesden Library and BACES from the plans are rather glaring, and the apparent unawareness of local people's long standing committment (and often real success) to improving Harlesden/Kensal Green's green spaces is striking.  The various problems caused in a busy town centre by licensing, planning, noise nuisance, shisha bars, fast food outlets and so on don't really appear. Even the traffic issues aren't really discussed. 

I also get a sense that, although the Old Oak Common area is mentioned, there is no real mechanism to think about influencing it, or indeed influencing the area around Willesden Junction

Monday, 24 April 2017

Town Centres in Brent

Tonight's Brent Council Cabinet has an interesting paper on town centres.  It touches on various themes that will be familiar to anybody who has thought about this subject _ smarter cities technologies, driverless cars, the importance of securing a town centre as a destination, the public realm and so on.

It also suggests bringing back Town Centre Managers, which Brent cut in 2011.  Once again I am struck by the change in policy not being linked to any particular rationale.  Do people on the Council disagree with the old policy, have they critiqued it or have they simply forgotten about it?

The other thing that strikes me is how this document appears to have been drawn up without thinking about libraries policy.  Following the Brent Libraries Transformation Project all Brent libraries are in Town Centres.  They are obvious places to base the Council's activities from.  The report mentions "cultural activities" as well as digital inclusion and public health.  These are all areas where it is widely claimed that libraries can and should play a leading role.

In particular, the document speaks of "work space" in terms of meanwhile uses, but omits mention of the possible use of places like Willesden Green Library Centre for this.  This is despite its previous use in the Library Lab project, the known benefits of co-location, its rather obvious provision of large numbers of computers and free WiFi, its existing use as a community hub and its established use for various training and educational activities. 

For example, the report rightly points to a worry that 67% of businesses in Wembley are not online, well above the national average.  In the days of the wireless Internet that becomes ever more important, as shoppers may use their iphone to direct their shopping.  Why not use Brent libraries for courses in how Brent shops can advertise themselves digitally?  The shops are near the library, the IT equipment is in the library and the libraries service have the connections to find instructors.  It would all fall under one of the strnads of the SCL "universal offer".

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Furness Pocket Park Tidy Up

Some one has had similar thoughts to me about tidying up the area by Furness Pocket Park.  The paving just by the edge of the park has been filled in.  Even though this all looks a bit makeshift, it should make the park easier to clean.


Saturday, 22 April 2017

South Kilburn and Falcon Public House

Monday's Cabinet meeting will see a paper on the Falcon House development which at last finds the Council actually trying to explain the benefits of redevelopment to people in Kilburn.  This is long overdue, and presumably is an adjustment to the Granville controversy. However, I am still far from clear as to what the process was by which these objectives were set

Friday, 21 April 2017

Tricycle Theatre Capital Grant

The Tricycle Theatre seems to have hit the jackpot with Brent Council, being offered a grant of up to £1 million in the next Brent Council Cabinet papers towards its renovation project.  As a long term supporter of the Tricycle, I am pleased for it, but I do wonder what the logic of Brent Council's behaviour is.

Back in 2011, there was a cut in the Tricycle Theatre's Council grant (although I think that was more to do with a personal vendetta of one of the councillors against the then Council Leader), and in 2014 a proposal was published to abolish it entirely.  I saw this as a retrograde step since, the Tricycle seems to me to be a key asset in the wider regeneration of Kilburn High Road. Happily, it was subsequently reversed.  Brent Council also stayed silent when the Theatre was under attack over the Jewish Film Festival. 

Suddenly, Brent Council has gone from this kind of gradual distancing to handing out a sizeable capital grant.  Why?

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Community Libraries Come Back to the Brent Council Cabinet

Coming up at the next Brent Cabinet is a paper on Brent's policy on Community Libraries, which strikes me as being very similar to the one passed in the Libraries Transformation Project back in April 2011.  Given the obvious success of Brent Libraries that is probably unsurprising. 

The new document tells us that:



"The Council has reviewed its working relationship with the four independent community library groups in the borough in order to agree and implement partnership arrangements. These libraries are constitutionally and operationally independent of the Council and do not form part of its statutory provision of library services. They are run by local voluntary and community sector organisations who have a strong sense of independence and individual visions for their community libraries." (3.1)

In other words they are in no sense part of Brent Council, and the Council has no financial liability for them, and no committment to manage them in any way.  That is thoroughly sensible.

Two of the groups faced up to this long ago, with both the Cricklewood (FOCL) and the Kensal Rise (FKRL) organisations raising their own funding and making their own decisions without any reference to the Council.  FOCL have not released any figures on their funding but they have largely completed their building, which (unlike the old Cricklewood Library) is DDA compliant.  FKRL have reportedly raised £160k in capital, an impressive sum which has come almost entirely from sources other than the Council and therefore directly adds to the social capital of the Borough.  The altered Kensal Rise building should also be DDA compliant.  Again this will be an improvement on the old building. 

However there are still worries about the other two buildings.  It is no coincidence that the Council remains entangled as the landlord in both cases.  In Barham, Paul Lorber appears to be trying to play the Council for either financial gain or as part of his political manoeuvrings prior to the 2018 elections.  In Preston, the existing group appears to be given an undue influence that does not sit easily with either the Council's financial obligations or the building's ACV status.  Such arrangements can lead to ugly rumours about the integrity of Council decision making even where there is no legally proven case against them. 

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

General Election 2017

Assuming that the General Election goes ahead, Brent is likely to see its three incumbent MPs stand again.  More interesting will be the position of the parties without incumbent MPs.  Will the former candidates restand?

Incidentally, those to whom this General Election comes as a surprise should try rereading Yvette Cooper's labourlist column in 2016.

Can Tokyngton Keep Moving?

Brent's Planning Committee is considering a formidable range of building projects near the Stadium next Wednesday.  This is on top of quite a range of projects that have already been approved.  If they all go ahead at once there will be an impressive amount of construction going on in northern Tokyngton, just as the area tries to cope with the effects of the extended use of the Stadium

I think residents are right to fear the consequences in terms of the impact on their lives, and I shall be very surprised if it does not become a major issue in the 2018 elections.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Assets of Community Value

I have been wary of assets of community value (ACV) as they appear to add a whole new layer of complexity to the fate of a particular property without really really having much in the way of benefits.  Local Government Lawyer goes through some of these here

The limitations of the approach are indicated by the inclusion of the Stonebridge Adventure Playground on Brent's ACV list despite its demolition.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Brent's Bleak Housing Record

The Guardian has a bleak report on housing in Brent and elsewhere here.  It is based on a fuller report here.  I am struck how once again the Council is simply portrayed as villainous in the report, rather than an organization responding to its only limited powers and resources.

Of course the debate on BHP on 20th April will address none of these issues, which are ultimately about the mismatch between supply and demand.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Brent Libraries Visits and Loans Up Yet Again

The annual figures for Brent libraries visits and loans are up yet again.  Visits went up by 1.3% on the previous year and loans increased by 0.5%, so a more modest increase than in previous years.  Here is a graph showing visits since the decision to pursue the Libraries Transformation Project in 2011. 



That is a contrast between 1,506,982 visits when there were twelve libraries in 2011, and 2,436,698 visits with six libraries today.  That represents a rise of just over 61% over the course of the entire period.

A similar graph for loans shows a more modest rise from 985,590 loans from twelve libraries back in 2011 to 1,063,996 loans in 2016/17.  That is an eight per cent rise.