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Sunday, 31 July 2011


The general future for Museums appears bleak.  Most seem to be suffering from a slow erosion of service rather than an all out cut.  That is something that we are trying to avoid in Brent by thinking through our decisions strategically.  Politically, it is certainly much easier to let things be slowly eroded rather than do anything dramatic, as that wakes up opposition, but for staff and users gradual decline seems to be far more debilitating.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Con Dem Collapse

The Guardian reports that the Con Dem government may collapse when the proposed boundary changes are put to the House of Commons.  Of course, the boundary changes were only ever a quid pro quo for the Tories agreeing to a referendum on the Alternative Vote.  A strikingly tawdry back room deal.  It takes a politician of Nick Clegg's calibre to agree such an utterly cynical deal, and then get no actual beenfit from it because you lose the referendum.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Reducing waste

Whereas attention in waste matters, often focus on increasing recycling, it it is worth noting that West London Waste is also pursuing a strategy designed to improve our performance at the higher end of the waste hierarchy.  Some of the ideas being promoted can be found here

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Highways Committee Last Night

I went to an unusually lively Highways Committee last night.  The most controversal item was a proposal to install some parking meters on Preston Road and Bridge Road.  Remarkably we took far longer on that item than on Brent's Local Implementation Plan (LIP), which is the main vehicle to determine our transport investment over the next four years.

We also had a number of threats from members of the public that we would be taken to court over the parking meter decision.  Making threats of this nature seems to be becoming increasingly fashionable. 

Cllr Paul Lorber added his own peculiar twist to the meeting by threatening to report us to the Local Government Ombudsman for maladministration.  This is on the somewhat obscure ground that the decision to go ahead with emissions based parking permits was taken by the Director of Environment under delegated powers rather than a meeting of the Executive.

I find such a concentration on process hard to understand.

Temporary Accommodation in Brent

Grim confirmation of the state of our housing market in brent can be found here.  From January 2012, this picture will worsen dramatically as the ConDem government's changes in housing benefit kick in.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Legal Hearing

This time last week I was sitting in Court 2 listening to the Libraries litigation. 

I must say that although Helen Mountfield QC (the library litigants' main representative) has a high reputation in these matters, she didn't seem to live up to it on this occasion.  Indeed her opening on case law, which took up the entirity of the first day, struck me as quite boilerplate.  She seemed to draw quite generically on her experience of Equalities legislation in other cases.  Admittedly, she improved greatly once she got on to the facts of the case, but fell apart badly in answering the Judge's queries on the final day.

Our own QC was, I thought, quite masterly, especially on the last day.  What is all the more remarkable is that she only took up the case late on.  Another QC from the same Chambers had been advising, but once the hearing date was announced he had a clash with another case.  To acquire such a mastery of such a complicated set of issues impresses me no end.

I am optimistic about the outcome, although I wish we could get a judgement sooner.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

A New Green Flag for Brent

I am pleased to see that the Parks service has obtained an eighth green flag for Brent.  The newcomer park is King Edward VII park in Wembley.  To pulll that off despite all the budget difficulties and the Council's own restructuring is a remarkable achievement, which builds on the Park service's previous record of excellence.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Navin Shah and Station Approach

Navin Shah, the Assembly member for Brent & Harrow, has asked Boris Johnson about the state of Station Approach.  The question and answer were:

What pressure is the Mayor exerting on Network Rail to bring Station Approach, the main route out from Willesden Junction, to an acceptable standard? Does he feel that the poor appearance of the landscape around Willesden Junction undermines the objectives around the upgrade to Station Road and the Harlesden Area based scheme in general?

Written response from the Mayor

The station approach is not within the London Overground Rail Operations Limited (LOROL) lease area and its maintenance is solely the responsibility of Network Rail.

However TfL and its operator LOROL have worked with Network Rail and the Borough to make improvements. This includes the funding of a fenced area for bins, and a study to look at relocating the toilet currently situated by the bus area and to improve the condition of the road surface and foot path at the station approach.

TfL has frequent meetings with Network Rail and continues to raise these issues with them.

I can't see that Boris' response seems to convey any sort of urgency or indeed genuine concern.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Big Society and Volunteering

Patrick Butler has a piece about the use of volunteers, which raises some interesting points.  He cites reports about a surge in volunteering in Kensington and Chelsea.  However, it is not enough just having "volunteers" to help you in a generic sense.  You have to ask:
  • Do the volunteers have the skills you need?  In the Kensington case, it appears the volunteers are looking to do a different kind of work to the one the charities need people to do.
  • Do the organisations using the volunteers have the resources to manage and train them?  Managing volunteers can be more challenging than managing paid staff.  It requires input and is in that sense a cost.  Many of the "Big Society" ideas don't seem to recognise this, assuming that any sort of volunteers must be an addition.
  • Do the volunteers meet minimum standards? For example, if you organise a rota of people to keep an office open, will everyone always turn up on time?
This is the sort of thing David Cameron's government appears not to have considered.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Sarah Teather on Housing

My colleague Lesley Jones is characteristically charitable towards Sarah Teather.  Ms Teather appears to be backtracking from her own government's policy on housing benefits.  This is unsurprising as the consequences in Brent Central will be disasterous.  However, I suspect the people who Sarah Teather's government is about to make homeless would probably prefer a change in policy rather than a failure to justify it.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Libraries Judgement

The court hearing into the Libraries Transformation Project has now ended, having overrun slightly into Thursday afternoon.  I understand that we are expecting a judgement by 12 August.  This is important as delays caused by the legal process cost the Council a lot of money, which of course has to be recovered elsewhere in the budget.

I understand that the judge suggested that he might be able to give an in principle judgement with reasons given later, but the litigants objected to this as they might want to appeal.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Brent Council Strategy Assumptions

Over the past few days, I have been going to a number of strategy meetings for the Council, and it has struck me that our policies are based on a number of premises that we have not fully articulated.  I thought it might be good for me to summarise them:

1) We have decided to value Brent staff.  This is partly down to principle and partly pragmatism.  The principle is that, as a Labour administration, we think our staff are entitled to certain pay and conditions, and those should not be lowered simply because an employer faces financial difficulty. Of course, we have deleted a vast number of posts as we need to balance the books, but we are not going down the road of some authorities of sacking all the staff and offering them jobs back only if they take a much lower salary. The pragmatic part of that decision is that we want to run good services, and that can only be done by well motivated staff.

2) That relates to the second principle: whatever we do, we want to do well.  Thus we have rejected suggestions that the quality of service should be downgraded.  Instead we are coping with the financial constraints by doing things more efficiently, or by deciding not to do them.

3) We are working on the correct assumption that the drastically reduced resources available tio the Council are here for the foreseeable future.  Although I wish it were otherwise, the self interest of the Lib Dems and Tories is likely to manacle them together until 2015.  Assuming Labour wins then, the government will no longer be ideologically committed to shrinking the state, but I don't expect a vast flow of resources to local government.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Sink Towns?

Patrick Butler has an interesting piece on some of the knock on effects of the ConDem government's housing benefits changes in Westminster.  He suggests the mass exodus of pupils whose parents can no longer afford the high rents may cause schools to lose much of their budgets.

Interestingly, Westminster are quoted as saying that people can move from there to Brent.  This ignores, the fact that Brent's housing sector will have very similar pressures.  What is likely to happen is an enormous movement of people out of London to areas on the coast (e.g. Hastings) or the North.  By definition people will be moving to poorer areas where jobs are scarce, so it doesn't seem to make sense in terms of getting people off benefits.  It is also likely to lead to some areas becoming "sink towns" where everyone gets locked into a cycle of poverty.  The government's housing benefit changes start in January 2012.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Recycling More in Brent

Our new recycling strategy will be implemented later this year.  You can find out further detail at the Brent web site on recycling more.  The most important changes are:
  • We will replace the current green box with a wheelie bin collected every other week.
  • We will collect the landfill bin every other week, and impose a "closed lid" policy where we only collect the bin if all the waste is in it.
  • We will extend a food waste collection to the 28,000 low rise households that currently don't have it We will also continue the existing food and garden waste collections.  Both of these will remain weekly collections.
  • We will improve recycling in flats in the early part of 2012.
The new bins will start rolling out in September, and the new collection service starts on 3 October.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Kensal Green Ward Working

The Kensal Green councillors will be doing another ward working walkabout on 19 July, starting from 5.30pm at the bottom of Harlesden Road.  You are welcome to join us.

Furness Road Pavements Marked

The pavements I blogged on yesterday have now been marked up, and should be repaired within a few days.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Live Ancestry and Brent Archives

You may have seen that Brent Archives are offering help with reseaching your ancestry in the Brent Magazine.  You can read more about it here.  This ties in with the long term aim of the archives service, which is to move more to enabling residents to do their own research, rather than doing the research directly.

More Broken Pavements

This is some broken pavement on Furness Road that I recently reported.  Getting bits of the Borough like this fixed may seem trivial but it does gradually improve the area.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

More on Trading Standards

Having gone to the Trading Standards office at Quality House on Willesden Lane yesterday, I am now far more familiar with the astonishing variety of stuff they do.  Brent and Harrow Councils have a combined Trading Standards arm which does more cases than the rest of London put together. 

The work they do includes tracking down counterfeiting operations of every good you can imagines _ shirts, wine, hair straighteners all sorts.  They also do a lot of work around child safety on underage sales or childrens' toys, and helping vulnerable people being ripped off by dodgy builders and the like.  This is in addition to the fair trading work making sure that what you get is what you paid for. 

Although I think many people regard these issues as small scale, some of their cases involve large scale operations.  The bigger cases deal with organised crime and schemes worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.  Thanks to the Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA), it is now possible to seize the criminals profits.  Even if they claim not to have the money, the debt can be recovered even years afterward.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Brent Trading Standards

Today I will be going to Quality House on Willesden Lane to check out Brent's Trading Standards.  Brent operates a Trading Standards consortium with Harrow.  Last year it dealt with more cases than the other thirty London Boroughs put together, and next year it is likely to be just as busy dealing with the Olympics.  However, as part of this year's budget settlement, we had to agree some pretty savage cuts so I am keen that performance be maintained.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

South Kilburn and Housing

One of the reports coming up in Monday's Executive is an update on the South Kilburn regeneration. We are steadily replacing the run down blocks that make up the Kilburn estate by selling off some of the properties for private housing and ringfencing the rest to redevelop South Kilburn with a mix of affordable housing.

A major obstacle in this are the policies of the present government which, as Dave Hill points out, are likely to massively reduce affordable housing in London.  The government insists that to get a grant for redevelopment we need to massively raise rents to 80% of market levels.  We aren't prepared to do that not least because it would make it virtually impossible to decant the existing blocks.  Hence we need to use land sales to push the South Kilburn regeneration forward.

To give an idea of what the government is demanding.  The average rent for a one bedroom flat in South Kilburn is about £80 per week.  The government policy would be to raise this to about £200 per week.  For bigger properties, say four bedrooms, the government would like to quadruple the rent.  Implementing these sort of rises would effectively expel the current population of South Kilburn from the area.  As the Dave Hill piece also makes clear, the government is pushing housing associations to build more one bedroom properties and fewer bigger properties, when we already have a shortage of family housing.

I have always been sceptical as to whether David Cameron's Big Society is going to see the reinvention of Victorian philanthropy, but it certainly looks like recreating Victorian housing conditions.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Council Cuts: The Wider Picture

The Guardian has a summary of local government cuts across the country based on CIPFA figures here.  Of course, the picture is radically different according to which local authority you are in.  The impact of the cuts is very different if you are in an authority like Brent (poorer and Labour) which depends heavily on central government grant, or like Westminster (richer and Tory), which has greater scope for raising its own funding.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The Big Society and Failure

The LGiU has an interesting article on failure and the Big Society.  Ir argues that adapting to the Big Society means building in redundancy, blind alleys and the freedom to make mistakes.  I find that hard to reconcile with the Con Dem government's rhetoric on greater efficiencies.

However, it is also worth thinking about what would happen if you had a genuinely vibrant community organisation running a service that got into financial trouble.  Might they not argue that any financial shortfall was temporary and/or minor compared to the value of the service?  They could then turn to ministers or local government and argue for a "temporary" bailout.  If the minister said no, he might well face a political/media campaign based on generating hostile publicity rather than reasoned argument.  As soon as he started giving into such campaigns, he would encourage more.

It sounds like a reciepe for service provision to be based on the strength of lobbying campaigns and the emotiveness of the issues they can raise, rather than on a strategy designed to address need.

It also might create a "moral hazard" problem where organisations fail to take proper care of their own finances because they assume that the government will bail them out.  Just like the banks.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Local Government Blog

I recently came across this blog on local government, which I find interesting reading. 

Potholes at the Town Hall

I was struck by the sheer number of potholes in the Brent Town Hall car park the other day.  You can see at least a dozen in this photo, each circled in white.  How did the car park get in such a state?

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Cost Shunting in Housing

The Guardian reports on the vast scale of the coming homelessness problems caused by the ConDem government's cuts programme.  As it says, much of the supposed saving will have to be picked up by other parts of the public sector, especially local authorities, which have a statutory duty to protect homeless people.

I well recall that when the NHS was trying to pass "savings" on to Brent Council's social services, Cllr Paul Lorber was constantly ranting about "cost shunting".  Now that his own government is doing something very similar on the housing front, he is strangely silent.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Tricycle Theatre and Brent Council

Nick Kent, the artisitc director of the Tricycle Theatre, has announced his retirement with a bitter attack on governments cuts towards the Arts and his theatre in particular.  It comes as Brent Council prepares to make a decision on our Arts Strategy, in which the Tricycle has featured for many years.  As the Guardian points out, the Tricycle is seeing cuts from both central government and London government.

Brent Council's own grant comes up for a decision on 18 July.  It is a grant very largely geared towards providing drama workshops for young people.  Youth services is an area that we decided as an administration to protect from the worst of the cuts, and I believe that most Brent residents support that priority.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Cuts by Choice

It is worth reminding ourselves from time to time that the cuts programme imposed by the Con Dem government is a political choice rather than an inevitability.  Indeed there is a good argument, expounded by Paul Krugman, that George Osborne's economic strategy is fundamentally wrong.  Aside from the cuts agenda going too far and too fast, the complaints about inflationary dangers are also pretty dodgy.

I suspect that George Osborne, David Cameron and their eager helper Nick Clegg areall robots of a rightwing upbringing in the 1980s that saw a fixation with low inflation and an ever shrinking government as objects of almost religious importance.

Eric Pickles and Council Publicity

Eric Pickles inability to enforce his publicity code has apparently dawned on him.  As I have pointed out before, in Brent's case cutting the frequency of Brent Magazine issues to less than the current ten would actually cost Brent Council money since it would destroy the value of the advertising.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

London in Bloom in Brent Parks

Later on I will be meeting the judges for the London in Bloom competition in Gladstone Park.  They are inspecting for this year's awards.  Despite all the financial difficulties, we still run a high quality park service.  The Villiers Road Pocket Park in Willesden Green has now opened, and is now called the Learie Constantine open space.  Next year, a new park will open up in Chalkhill.

Court Date for Libraries

We finally have a date for a hearing on the Libraries Transformation Project.  The hearing will start on 19 July and is expected to last two days.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Brent Council Council Tax Collection

A few days ago, someone sent me an allegation that Brent Council has an extremely poor rate of Council Tax collection.  I don't know how these rumours get started, but it is not true and worth correcting.

Certainly, the collection used to be far worse.  In 2002/3, it was 89.5%.  Since then it has risen every year, to 95.59% in 2010/11.  This puts us at number 20 of the 33 London authorities.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

More on Carbon Emissions

The implications for our new household waste system for carbon emissions have been rather ignored, not least by the "Friends of the Earth" campaigners who opposed the strategy tooth and nail. 

We employed a specialist company to analyse the effects of switching to a variety of systems.  If were to rerun this process today, we would probably have a slightly different answer because the West London Waste Authroity now has a more sophisticated understanding of the composition of household waste in Brent.  Similarly, once the new system starts going in October our understanding will rapidly increase again, but at the moment the best figures we have are the ones published in August 2010.

These use carbon dioxide equivalent as a measure.  This equates a number of pollutants using a kilogram of carbon dioxide as a yardstick.  Thus, a kilogram of methane is equivalent to 23 kilograms of carbon dioxide and so on. 

The study suggested that carrying on with the old system would produce almost 13 million kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions.  The new system will reduce this by about 7.3 million; more than half the total, and more than the 25% cut in carbon emissions from the Council's own operation that I blogged on Saturday about.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Station Road Update

The Harlesden Town Team are holding another meeting to discuss the Town Centre upgrade at the Salvation Army Building in Manor Park Road tonight.  As so often, it coincides with another meeting I have to go to, so I won't be there, but I thought it might be of interest to see a timetable for the project, which is as follows:

June 2011: Station Road consultation complete

July 2011: Main scheme preliminary design completed

Sept 2011: Station Road streetworks begin

Sept 2011 Main scheme consultation

Oct 2011: Main scheme detailed design begins

Nov 2011: Scheme approval

Dec 2011: Station Road works completed

Jan 2012: Main scheme detailed design completed

Sept 2012: Main Scheme streetworks commence

April 2013: Main scheme streetworks complete

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Carbon Emissions Pledge

One of the Labour Party's key pledges in the environmental field is to cut the Council's carbon emissions by 25% by 2014.  We are going to do this largely through the carbon savings from the new Ciivic Centre, which is currently being described in the latest round of Area Forums.  What is striking is that, as far as I know, none of the other parties in Brent made any pledges on carbon emissions at all _ and that includes the Green Party.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Shoddy Utility Work

I saw this shoddy utility work at the junction of Wrottesley Road and Furness road yesterday.  It is always worth complaining about these, as incrementally they slowly degrade the streetscene.