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Monday, 16 October 2017

Latest Update on Brent Library Figures 2017

The first half figures for Brent Libraries in 2017 are now published, and they show little change from the previous half year.  Loans are down slightly, and visits are up a little.  The run of dramatic increases as a result of the Libraries Transformation Project has therefore come to an end as I predicted

The full figures are:



First Half (1 Apr-30 Sept)               2016                       2017                       % Growth

Loans                                                532,749              528,729                            -0.8%
Visits                                              1,204,502          1,238,246                             2.8%

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Wrong Report in the Kilburn Times Regarding Bertha Joseph

I have just seen this report in the Kilburn Times about former councillor Bertha Joseph.  At the time of writing, the Kilburn Times states that the allegations against Bertha Joseph were "false".  I imagine the piece is based on a conversation with Bertha herself.  Whilst that may be her memory; the reality is quite different.  

The allegations against were that she diverted donations made to charity to her own use, and failed to report them.  This led the Brent Standards Committee to suspend her for six months, the maximum penalty then available for misconduct by councillors.  This suspension occurred in late 2009, although the breaches occurred in her Mayoral Year some time before.  Bertha Joseph then exercised her right to appeal, which had the effect of the punishment being suspended whilst the legal process ran its course.  As I recall the appeal was not so much against the facts of the case as the harshness of the punishment.  That appeal was dismissed in early 2010 in a judgement that I remarked at the time was extremely strongly worded

Boris Johnson somewhat cynically kept her on the London Fire Authority (LFEPA) so that she could vote through a series of controversial cuts to the London Fire Service.  He widely criticised for this, but he does not appear to have challenged the result of the appeal process.  Indeed, according to the Guardian at the time, his spokesman said that ""Councillor Joseph still disputes the complaint made against her, but the mayor believes the first-tier tribunal made a compelling case against her continuing to serve on the authority. The mayor had allowed Ms Joseph two weeks to make her case to him, in the interests of natural justice and due process."  He then got rid of her, after the crucial budget meeting.

The complaint to the police was made subsequently, and does not relate to the original judgement or the outcome of the appeal.

Bertha Joseph is apparently selected to stand as a Conservative candidate in Brondesbury Park

Friday, 13 October 2017

A seachange over Brexit?

A new poll suggests a majority now think leaving the EU is a mistake.  One shouldn't get too excited by one poll, but the implications of a majority of the public thinking it a bad idea to leave could change political debate significantly.

I suspect it has a lot to do with the way the government is trying to suppress knowledge of the likely impact of Brexit

Most MPs still think that staying in the EU is best for Britain.  A faction of the Tory Party has successfully used the referendum result to railroad Parliament into voting the UK out by arguing that "the will of the people is sacred." If the will of the people changes, as in any democracy it can, that argument falls away.  A persistent poll lead in favour of remain, based on a better understanding of the likely consequence of having the worst of both worlds might make a pause or even a reversal of the exit process far more likely. 

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Return to Manor Park Works Site

As I pointed out before one of the Kensal Green councillors is seeking to organise protests against the Manor Park Works redevelopment on the grounds that it is too big whilst ignoring the much larger proposed development of 2 Scrubs Lane.

This is odd, as Brent has specifically said it wants the Manor Park Works site redeveloped as housing.  According to Brent Council's documents, the site would have 45 units which is somewhat above what Brent planners had as an indicative figure, but not drastically so.  An email in circulation makes what appears to be a false claim that there will be "a hundred bedrooms" which is higher than the figures in the planning documents and states that 150 people would live there (a figure which seems to have been plucked from the air).  I really don't think that public debate is helped by inserting random and/or untrue figures.  The same document objects to the lack of green space, as if it were remotely possible to develop that site with green space.

Councillors really do not to think about development in a much more coherent and consistent manor than they appear to be currently doing.

UPDATE 10.10.17

Actually a 20 storey building on 2 Scrubs Lane would be visible from pretty much everywhere in southern Brent, including anywhere near Harlesden Town Centre.  The application is to be decided tomorrow.  I also find it odd that the councillor in question is objecting to a seven storey building as too tall but has expressed no objection to a twenty storey building in the same ward.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Kensal Green in City Hall

Following Michael's comment here, I have sought out the Planning Meeting concerned.  The papers and agenda are here.  The venue for the meeting is City Hall at 6pm on Wednesday 11 October, and I have written to the Committee clark to see if there is scope for verbal objections as well.  Of course, I am no longer a councillor so I haven't really kept up with the system as it relates to Park Royal.  I must say it does surprise me that none of the Kensal Green councillors appear to have objected despite the well known opposition of at least one one of them to any housing applications.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Costs at Cricklewood

Like the Kensal Rise Library, Cricklewood Library has succeeded in fund raising for its capital costs.  The next part is securing the running costs of whatever is in there.  In this, I would have misgivings about whether trying to run something resembling a local authority library is sensible.  The infrastructure of running even a small local authority library is extremely expensive and cumbersome. 

What I think many of these groups actually want is a community space and a symbol of the local area, which could be obtained far more cheaply since it would not require things like computers, staff/volunteer training etc. that add considerable complication

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Localism, Trees and Meddling

Michael Gove, with his customary self assurance, has been looking for ways to impose his will on Sheffield Council over street trees.  The Council in Sheffield has a programme which apparently involves the removal of a number of trees on the grounds that they are "dying, diseased or dangerous."

I don't know know if the said trees actually are dangerous, but I would think Sheffield Council and whatever tree specialist they employ are better placed to know than Michael Gove.  Cases of people dying from fallen branches are not unknown as this example from Willesden illustrates.   If Mr Gove were to "save" some trees, and one of them were subsequently involved in an accident, I think it fairly likely that Mr Gove would not be accepting responsibility, but he does seem to feel it is his role to make the decision.

That shows you a lot about how the government's approach to localism is entirely cynical.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Heseltine on Tory Prospects

As one might expect, Michael Heseltine's interview with Prospect is full of insights, but I think he over estimates the Labour Party.  At present the Labour Party seem to me to be falling into a trap.  Many people in the Labour Party seem to see the 2017 election as a victory when it was a defeat, refuse to accept the scale of the task to secure a majority (more than sixty seats assuming all the existing seats are held) and don't seem to accept the need to prove to the electorate that the Party will be reasonably competent in economic matters.  The current mood in the Labour Party strikes me as worryingly close to the kind of hubris which put Theresa May where she is today, in office but not in power.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

The Queensbury Controversy Returns

The redevelopment of The Queensbury site in Willesden is already being framed as a "battle" ahead of it being clear what the new developers' plans actually are.  I opposed the Fairview proposals in both their first and their second incarnations, but to oppose the new developer without seeing the actual proposal does seem over the top.  Some people just seem to oppose everything. 

That said, 48 units sounds worryingly similar to the previous rejected application.  That went to appeal, and if the developer is sensible the new proposals will take careful account of the Planning Inspector objections from last time

The object of the planning system is not to endlessly block development, but rather to regulate it so that it is sensible, and ensures that the area continues to develop in a balanced way.  That is essential in an area as dynamic as Brent.  To go to far in either alternative direction either leaves you with a kind of museum piece or a commercial free for all. 

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Brent Library Events

After many years of downright hostile reporting on Brent libraries, it seems that the Kilburn Times has finally just published a straight piece about an event at Willesden Library (on new African writing).  Of course the staff at Kilburn Times have been turned over so the new ones are probably not as hostile as in the past.

You can see more about Brent library events here

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Welfare Assistance in Brent

Brent's local welfare scheme appears to be staggering on.  I remember devoting a lot of time to trying to make the Brent scheme work, so I am glad that it survives when many English schemes have been done away with altogether

There is good evidence that the kind of cheap and early interventions made through this kind of scheme are disproportionately beneficial to the public purse, since they work to prevent problems like homelessness that can cost a lot more to solve at a later stage.  I hope therefore that Brent will maintain its scheme, or even enhance it as some lobby groups advocate.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Mismatching Politics and Economics

It looks to me that the UK's long period of mistimed austerity is about to be replaced by a mini-boom in spending.  There is no doubt that Ed Balls was quite right in criticising George Osborne for going too far and too fast in cutting spending.  The result pushed the Bank of England to make up for the government's spending cuts with historically low interest rates for an extraordinary period of time.  Ed Balls didn't get credit for his prescience, because most of the public accepted the "common sense" approach that a time of deficit was a time to cut back on spending.

Now inflation is above the UK target of 2%, and in danger of rising further.  Conventional demand management suggests that should mean limitations on spending, but the politics is now going strongly in the opposite way, with people fed up by years of austerity demanding more spending to build public service from the ruinous state they have been allowed to fall into under the Tories.  The fall of the pound following Brexit has not helped.

The result is likely to see the Bank of England raising interest rates to compensate for increased spending and the possibility of the inflation rises becoming self reinforcing.  This is going to lead to a very nasty situation, and possibly even a period of stagflation.  Again Brexit adds further poison to the mix as the Bank uses the interest rate tool to limit inflation and possibly even an old fashioned run on the pound.  Anyone holding debts is likely to get a nasty shock as the cost of servicing the debts gets ratcheted up at a quick rate.The real architects of this situation, step forward Mr Osborne, are gone, but it is likely to destroy the reputation of whoever is in office.


Sunday, 17 September 2017

2 Scrubs Lane Overdevelopment

There is an appalling proposal to build a twenty storey development on the site of the church at 2 Scrubs Lane.  Anyone who knows that area will know it is wholly unsuitable.  However, as the application falls under the Park Royal Development Area, the decision may well be made by people who don't know the area.

I have written to object in the following terms:

I am writing to oppose the above application which simply appals me as an example of grotesque overdevelopment.  The proposed height of twenty stories dwarfs any other building in the area.  The very highest building in the existing neighbourhood is Cumberland House, to the South, which is eight or nine stories and part of the industrial estate.  The rest of this area is characterised by low rise residential housing, often of only two stories.  The sheer size of this proposal should mark it out as unacceptable.  I can only assume that the site's peculiar position in both Hammersmith and Fulham and Brent has allowed an obviously unsuitable proposal to slip through the net during the Summer.  It should simply have been rejected out of hand.

The proposal envisages installing a major source of traffic generation at a site where there have been significant traffic problems in the past.  These were improved thanks to TfL investment some years ago, but are likely to worsen if such a huge development goes ahead.  This is likely to damage road safety at this junction, but also significantly worsen air quality in an area where air quality is already a concern.  The creation of traffic problems at the site will also lead to knock on effects in Harlesden Town Centre, which has only recently been remodelled at considerable expense.  The usages of any successful application should be geared to minimise the addition of traffic given the site's crucial significanace to the transport network towards Baker Street and also towards White City.

The proportion of affordable housing is said to be only about 24%, which seems very low, and well below Brent's normal aspirations.

I also find it hard to imagine how such an overbearing building can be squeezed on to what is quite a small footprint, especially if it is to contribute any sort of "circulation space" or public realm element.

I further note that this post Grenfell application appears to have only one staircase for escape in case of fire.  It will also of course be determined without the benefits of the Grenfell inquiry, as that has yet to report. 

I also note the point made in Andy Slaughter MP's objection that the planning guidelines for this area are yet to be fully formed, which adds to the impression that the proposal is being rushed through in the hope of securing approval for developments that would not get through on their planning merits.

I urge other people to also object.  The email address to write to is planningapplications@opdc.london.gov.uk, and details of the plans can be found here.  At the time of writing, no one from Brent appears to have made any comment despite the negative effect it would have on our area.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Ashford Place Community Cafe

It is interesting to see how Ashford Place Community Cafe is developing.  Although Ashford Place has a long history, the community cafe idea emerged as a kind of by-blow from the Brent Libraries Transformation Project.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Business Rates

Tonight's Brent Council Cabinet report on business rates makes passing reference to a "lack of clarity" about the government's policy on business rates.  The long term aim of the government is said to be 100% retention of business rates by each area.  In practice that could mean dramatic differences between winning areas and losing areas.  A London wide approach would limit the risk considerably.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Library Improvement

It is sometimes said that the decline of libraries in the UK is inevitable and part of a wider social change.  I think the success of the Brent Libraries Transformation Project demonstrates otherwise, but advocates of that view should also explain the performance of libraries in the USA, where usage appears to on the rise. 

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Research into Volunteer Libraries

The Government has finally decided to some research into whether volunteer libraries work.  Frankly, it is rather late in the day.  As I have pointed out (as have many others) this research has been an obvious gap with now hundreds of volunteer libraries in operation, but no evidence of far they really work.  The patchy evidence I have been able to find suggests that they don't all that much. 

One line that I think really hits the mark is "a small minority of stakeholders reported that, in some cases, their expectations were set low to begin with, raising the question as to whether the performance of CLs is assessed by stakeholders on an equal basis with local authority led libraries."  My suspicion is that it isn't as there is a real incentive for all concerned to big up the performance of volunteer libraries.  The volunteers themselves want to have a sense of achievement, and have to sell a story of success in order to attract support.  The Councils that have gone down this route have no incentive to argue that their policy didn't work. 

Brent unfortunately has the model about which least is known about the "Independent Library" model, where the local authority gives no real support

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.