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Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Incompetent Con Dem Ministers

Simon Jenkins suggests that ministers in the present government are plain incompetent.  It is hard not to agree as far as taking decisions are concerned.  I am told that when the Council met with Michael Gove to try to save some of the education spend promised after his decision to cancel Building Schools for the Future, Sarah Teather appeared simply unaware of the potential threat to Roundwood Youth Club.  Such was her lack of interest in the constituency that she is supposed to represent, that she seemed not to know that a £5 million investment in youth services had been frozen. 

Similarly she seems to have done nothing to resist the cancellation of Building Schools for the Future, which directly disadvantages the pupils of Newman Catholic College or Copland School that would have benefited from the investment. That is despite it being a specific pledge in the Brent Liberal Democrats' manifesto.  She also seems to be indifferent to the problems over primary school places, cuts in EMA, cuts in Early Intervention Grant and a host of other issues.

I assume that the explanation for this is that she and the rest of her party got into politics for the sake of posturing rather than achieving anything.  It comes as a shock to them that their decisions are now having consequences.

Old Oak Common

Hammersmith & Fulham have unveiled proposals for the Old Oak Common area.  From our point of view it is crucial that any development be closely linked to Willesden Junction so that Harlesden Town Centre can continue to reap the benefits.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Station Road Road Works

The road works have started in Station Road. This will be the first stage of the transformation of Harlesden Town Centre.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Scots and the Union

I was recently in Scotland, where the SNP are in the ascendant.  They are in the happy position of playing off the Unionist parties locally against the UK government, in other words having their cake and eating it.  Ironically, the SNP can only maintain this politically advantageous position so long as they fail in their overall aim of breaking up the Union.  The unionist parties, meanwhile, seem to me to fail to develop a proper case for the union _ failing to go beyond a very basic argument that Scotland gets more from the UK tax pot than it puts in.  While true, this strikes me as a very limited case, and it seems to me that both sides of the border gets things together that they could not get apart.  I wish the unionist parties would be more active in promoting pro-unionist arguments such as:

1) The value of the currency:  As I see it, an independent Scotland would have three choices.  It could keep the pound, which would mean the Bank of England would continue setting interest rates as it does at the moment.  I think that is the best system as the UK seems a near optimal currency area, but it runs completely contrary to the whole logic of independence.  Scotland could also join the Euro, but that would mean that the ECB would set interest rates, which it seems to do in a way that suits the German economy, but not most of the rest of the Euro area, including Scotland.  Finally, it could launch a separate currency, but that would have all the disadvantages of a small currency based around a small economy.  Indeed the last two options would presumably set up trade barriers with England that don't exist at the moment.  As England is likely to be one of Scotland's main trading partners whatever the political arrangements, that would be bound to be to the disadvantage of bother countries.

2) The Sovereign Debt argument:  The UK is a fairly big economy and that gave a certain stability during the financial crisis.  Despite having such a big financial sector, the UK was able to guarantee its banks without incurring the kind of difficulties that have led to a sovereign debt crisis in Ireland.  I doubt whether an independent Scotland would have been able to do the same.

3) Defence:  The UK is able to maintain a strategic defence capability, again as a result of sheer size.  The increasing expense and sophistication of defence projects like the new aircraft carriers is making this harder and harder.  It seems unlikely that an independent Scotland could maintain, for instance, top of the range fighter aircraft _ leading to a steady structural disarmament and loss of capability.  This is distinct from the "Scottish jobs" argument at Rosyth or elsewhere that is so often wheeled out.  Of course, the SNP argument might be that they want to scale back defence spending and simply do things like UN peacekeeping, but if so they need to make that clear.  A diminished UK would also find it harder to maintain high level defence capabilities, which would have implications for both UK defence and NATO.

4) Bureaucracy:  Presumably an independent Scotland would have to duplicate the apparatus of a sovereign state.  For example, I take it would have to set up a string of embassies around the world.  Is that really going to add anything that we don't get from the existing Diplomatic service?

5) Culture:  I suspect that the SNP would make an argument that independence would help the Scots overcome any "cultural cringe" that they may have towards the English.  However, I haven't noticed such a cringe, unless its comes in the form of defensive truculence.  I think Scotland both historically and currently has been perfectly capable of developing and maintaining its culture within the union.  If anything, I would have thought a separate Scottish Broadcasting Corporation would be far less effective than the BBC. 

It seems to me that all these factors, suggest a benefit for both sides of the border in continuing the union.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Ward Working Again

I see that former councillor Robert Dunwell has been attacking the ward working budget.  He shares this approach with his former Tory colleagues as well as Cllr Paul Lorber.  They all seem to see the budget as a piggy bank to be raided for their own pet schemes.  In fact, it is intended to help councillors to engage with the public, as I have explained before.

Notting Hill Carnival

The Notting Hill Carnival is going ahead this weekend.  Let us hope that it is not exploited by woulb be rioters.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Campaign Photos

The Guardian runs a short story about Boris Johnson's house being identified on a web site.  I agree that shouldn't be done, but I also recall that the Conservative Party was perfectly happy to put photographs of the Labour candidate's house on their leaflet during the 2003 by-election in Brent East.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Libraries and Blogging

Welovelocalgovernment has an update on the libraries discussion I pointed to earlier.  Essentially, it points out the very heated nature of much of the commentary, and the difficult dilemmas facing Gloucestershire.  I willl stay off commenting on Gloucestershire, as I don't know much about their situation.  However, I am puzzled that posts on this topic seem to automatically lead to often quite nasty abuse as can be seen in the coment thread here.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Youth Services and Anti-Social Behaviour

This is a report linking anti-social behaviour to the closure of youth centres; In Norfolk as it happens.  I don't deny that there is a link.  That is why Brent Council has preserved its youth centres, and is making a major new invesment in the Roundwood Youth Centre in Kensal Green.

However, I don't think the analysis is entirely satisfactory.  Firstly, I think these kind of activities appeal only to a proportion of young people.  Large numbers seem happy doing other things.  Many of those who are most likely to commit anti-social behaviour won't go near the Council Youth Service.  However, I suspect that the Youth Service probably is successful in drawing mildly disaffected people away from getting involved in criminality.  In doing so they help to isolate the hard core, who were mostly likely to commit the kind of public disorder that we saw recently.

Perhaps Nick Clegg and David Cameron should reflect on that as they preside over major cuts to youth services around the country.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Payments to Coulson

The Andy Coulson saga rumbles on.  It is surely absurd for the Tory Party to argue that someone working as the Prime Minister's chief press officer while receiving payments from a leading UK media organisation has no conflict of interest.  The sooner David Cameron launches a credible public enquiry into all this, including what he himself knew, the better.

Planning and Secrecy

Correspondence from the Prince of Wales to Boris Johnson on planning applications is being kept secret, according to the Guardian.  I find this worrying, as openess is one of the principal defences to ensure proper planning decisions.  Given the problems we have had with Parliament, the Police and the Media recently (all of which have been linked to non-disclosure), is further secrecy the best way forward?

Brent Council Recycling More

I am beginning to get more inquiries about Brent's plans to improve recycling in the Borough.  You can find out more about these here.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Library Debate Round Up

The debate over public libraries, which crosses my mind from time to time for some reason, has thrown up some interesting comments on the web.  As Brent is still in the middle of its own judicial review on the subject, I will forebear to comment for the moment, but others may be interested in this post from welovelocalgovernment.  It covers not jut libraries but also the (in)advisability of using the judicial process to make political decisions.

There is also an interesting discussion on Voices for the Library here.  The comments thread appears to include a number of comments from Brent's own litigant community, including on the viability of volunteer run libraries (which is one of their main grounds of challenge).

Finally, our own head librarian wrote to the Times some time ago pleading for libraries to be seen as a modern service, not just a throwback to childhood memories.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Road Works and Utilities

The Con Dem government has just announced a plan to "incentivise" utilities to dig up roads outside rush hour.  I must say this strikes me as more of a gimmick than a policy.  The review of the pilot scheme from 2002 to 2004 suggested it would have little effect, and Stephen Hammond hasn't explained why that review is wrong.  Any substantial roadworks are likely to take a number of days.  If instead of that work being continuous, the workmen have to stop and start all the time, it seems likely that the works will be protracted rather than speeded up.  Think of all the weekends where the Tube is closed down on this or that line.

Surely, to limit congestion you really need a set of policies based around sustainable transport.  Perhaps ministers should concentrate on that rather than their ridiculous "war on the motorist rhetoric.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Public Opinion and the Riots

There is some polling on public reaction to the riots here.  There seems to be strong support for a hardline approach, except in the question where indirect consequences are pointed out _ on evicting whole families from Council Housing.  There are already concerns over the overflow in the prison system and other longer term consequences.  I am sure that a real solution would need greater emphasis on restorative justice, community sentences and socio-economic causes than David Cameron's rhetoric currently emphasises.  Mr Cameron has in the past tried to portray himself as a "liberal" but only in cases where it looked like a vote winner.  We will see if he or anyone else in the coalition is willing to persist with that approach now that there is no immediate political advantage.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Station Road Work to Begin

I underrstand that the work on Station Road may begin as early as next week.  This is because the contractor is expecting to finish the previous job earlier.  The work will begin with paving on the east side of the road.  However, there is still no word on progress on Station Approach.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Urban Planning and Riots

Via Dave Hill, I came across this piece on urban planning and riots.  Suppressing an ignoble thought that however bad London's experience has been we don't sound as bad as parts of France, my next thought was that it sounds as if we are heading in the French direction. 

The government is making major changes to housing benefit in January 2012.  These are likely to lead to the effective expulsion of the poor from many of the richer areas of London.  Some of the changes are also likely to lead to much worse overcrowding.  The dire state of the economy, and the reluctance of the government to driving the supply of housing area also leading to an increasing polarisation.

In Brent, we are already seeing this.  Poor areas like Stonebridge are seeing poverty deepen.  There is good evidence that other parts, like Mapesbury or Brondesbury, are seeing the income profile of their residents go up (along with house prices).  This sounds like it is tending to the banlieue/rich area split that the articles describes.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Networking Web Sites

There is growing evidence that online resources are becoming a far more important source of community engaement and information.  Brent used to be quite good at this, but my feeling is that Council has lost its edge in its online offer.  Currently, Brent Council is remodelling its customer contact to be more effective online, but I think it also needs to think more about engaging with social networking.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Riots in Harlesden

The rioting in Harlesden was thankfully fairly limited.  I went round with the police talking to shopkeepers on Monday, and only two shops were attacked _ the pawnbrokers by The Shawl and the pound shop opposite HSBC.  I understand the greed motive in attacking the pawnbrokers, but why the pound shop?  I assume that part of the rioting was organised crime, and part opportunist, almost curiosity driven, theft by people who wouldn't normally be involved.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Boris Johnson Attacks Himself

Following on from the riots, we are seeing lots of politicians being exposed as rather shallow.  Mr Cameron got a quite extraordinary ticking off from Sir Hugh Orde at the weekend over his pledge to use water cannon and baton rounds.  Theresa May's rather foolish claim to have given operational orders to the police was also given short shrift.  I notice via Tory Troll, that Boris Johnson has also been making some foolish statements on police numbers.

The difference with Mr Cameron and Ms May is that they are claiming to be issuing instructions on matters that they have no legal authority over.  Boris does actually set the police budget in London, and is now claiming to oppose his own budget!

What worries me about this sort of thing is that all three of them may well get away with it.  Media coverage in the UK oftyen seems to ignore hypocrisy and untruths, and (even where they are uncovered) the public doesn't seem to punish them..

Monday, 15 August 2011

Looting and Arrests

Arrests are proceeding following the looting.  The Willesden Times reports one such here.  Those both sound like organised gangs, although I am sure that there is an element of opportunistic theft as well.  Some of the looters appear to have got themselves fairly severe sentences over trivial items.  The Guardian on Friday carried a story of someone being sent to prison for stealing a few pounds worth of bottled water.  Is that really worth getting a criminal record for?

Ed Miliband has called for some form of public enquiry into the causes of the riots, and I think that would be very welcome as I think many of the responses from both left and right have been fairly knee jerk, and a more evidence based approach is needed.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

More on Preston Road Parking

Sagar Shah has a lengthy posting on parking in Preston Road, which as he says is rather passionate.  He asks for a response, so here goes.

The first thing that strikes me, as I pointed out earlier, is that there seems to be an assumption that one area is being singled out.  This is actually the opposite of the fact.  The recent Highways decision is actually bringing the arrangements in Preston Road in line with other parts of the Borough.  Meters are being introduced as they exist elsewhere, and the same standard charge is applied.  My view is that treating Preston Road in the same way as other places is fair. 

My experience of going around various different parts of Brent is that there is a general perception that resources are skewed elsewhere.  People in the North frequently state that resources are sent disproportionately to the south.  People in the South often argue that resources are unfairly sent to the North. Sags argues that Preston Road should be treated as a special case, but I think that would only be justified if some special rationale can be shown.

He also argues that the shopkeepers are dependent on the free parking, and that without this they will go out of business.  I don't believe that is true, but it does not answer the point about fairness.  Effectively he is arguing for this road to get a special subsidy.  Why this road and not (say) Willesden, Chamberlayne Road, Harlesden or any other parade of shops?

The point, which is commonly made, that parking charges are there to maximise revenue ignores the fact that all such revenues have to be spent on transport expenditure.  In other words, motorists are contributing to the upkeep of the roads and pavements.  Since they use this transport network, that seems to me to be not unreasonable.

There is also a specific issue in the Preston Road area about the car park, which is widely regarded as underused.  Various charging regiemes have been attempted there, and yet people still complain that it is virtually empty.  I suspect that this is related to having free onstreet parking very close by.  Why pay when you don't have to? The introduction of meters will show if I am right.  It will also help to deal with the enforcement issues that Sags mentions.  As wardens will be enforcing the meters, they will also be available for other kinds of enforcement, something that has been noticeable in CPZ areas for many years.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

More on Libraries

Thanks to Sagar Shah for his thoughtful post here.  The concerns I have over the delay in judgement are several, but I thought I would respond to the ones Sagar raises.

a) Yes, some of the staff have expressed frustration at not being given a redundancy date.  Among other things it presumably makes it harder to apply to other employers if you can't tell them when you will be available.
b) Secondly, there are difficulties keeping the libraries open on the current basis as some of the staff are leaving either through early retirement or otherwise.  This creates all kinds of practical diffciulties in running the library service.  The litigants are currently threatening us with further court action if we make any changes at all to the service.
c) The concern on budget overspend is that keeping the status quo entails something like £20k per week.  A few weeks delay quickly adds up to a substantial overspend.  Of course, this overspend will have to be recovered elsewhere in the budget.  I doubt whether any of the litigants would care to explain to whoever suffers from the consequent cuts why their services deserve to be cut.
d) The point about the taxpayer paying the bills at the end of Sagar's point is actually one of the things I find most absurd.  Yes, the Council bills are paid by the taxpayer, but there is a difference in that the Council Executive are responsible for the expenditure and explain it.  Neither the litigants or their lawyers seem to be under a similar obligation.  However, in deciding to fund the case the Legal Services Commission is making sure that the taxpayer is paying for both sides of the same action.  Is there not something a bit barmy about that?
e) Finally, I am not going to react to any judgement until I hear what it is.  I certainly expect the Court to uphold the Council's position, but there is no point in speculating.

Of course, the original point of asking for an expedited hearing was precisely that a quick outcome would be beneficial.  That point is rather lost if there is no decision.

One last point that the litigants appear to have forgotten is that any outcome to the Court case does not change the financial situation, or the current weaknesses in the service that the Libraries Transformation Project seeks to address.  If the decision is quashed, the Council will have to take a second look at the service in a very similar context to the decision in April.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Judgement Delayed

Despite our best efforts, it looks as if the judgement in the Libraries case is not going to be delivered until the new law term in October.  This is enormously frustrating for me, but still more so for the staff who have agreed voluntary redundancy terms but cannot be given notice while the case is pending.  It, of course, also means an overun in the Libraries budget.  The litigants have no such concerns, as their bills are paid by the taxpayer through legal aid.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Political Fantasy

Someone told me recently that they had been have a conversation with a Brent Liberal Democrat councillor in which he assumed that the Liberal Democrats would be back in power in Brent in 2014.  In politics all things are possible, but something will have to change dramatically from the current opinion poll ratings.  Having sold themselves as the leftwing alternative to Labour and then embraced the radical right agenda of the present Con Dem government, the Liberal Democrats have seen there support halved.  Unless things change dramatically, they will be fortunate to have any seats at all after May 2014.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Parking in Preston Road

The tone of some of the coverage of the last Highways Committee seems a little puzzling.  Of course, it is to be expected that where people have got used to free parking, they want to keep it.  However the Times report implies that the Preston Road area is being uniquely singled out for a crushing burden.  In fact, Preston Road is just being treated in the same as all our other Town Centres _ Kilburn, Kingsbury, Wembley, Harlesden and so on.  This also extends to the level of charges at the parking meters, which are uniform across the Borough.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Disorder in Harlesden

The disorder in Harlesden last night was much more muted than it might have been.  The BBC reported this morning that three men were arrested last night on suspicion of the attempted murder of a police officer in Brent, but all I saw were the wreckage of the pawnbroker near the Shawl pub in Harlesden High Street and a lot of shops forced to bring their shutters down early. at around 6pm, there were a large number of youths hanging around the Town Centre, so the Harlesden Town Team meeting was aborted.

As far as I can see none of this is a political protest, merely recreational rioting with people burnt out of their homes and businesses damaged through straightforward criminality.


I have found a report of the suspected attempted murder.

Cuts in Charities

The Evening Standard has a report on the massive scale of cuts facing charities in the UK.  This includes both central and local government cuts (although local government is often just passing on central government cuts in reality).  What strikes me about this is that the figures don't come from Central Government, but from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO). 

Building up charities was supposed to be what the David Cameron's "Big Society" idea was all about.  Based on the rather dubious premise that the worst people to deliver public services were public servants, we were told that a vast upswelling of charities and volunteers would take the place of all the public employees being made redundant.  Why then isn't the government trying to assess the extent of the charitable sector, and how far it is taking on the challenge?

Some might say this shows that David Cameron was simply using the "Big Society" rhetoric to cover up an ideologically motivated programme to shrink the state.  I take the more charitable view that the Prime Minister has been taken in by his own speeches, and he really thought the "Big Society" would happen.  The fact that he has made no effort to monitor whether it was happening, and that his cuts programme is undermining the whole concept, is simply evidence that the government is incompetent as well as nasty.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Toby Harris on Riots

Toby Harris, formerly leader of Haringey Council, posts on the riots in Haringey (and now quite large parts of the rest of London) here.  We have been fortunate to avoid this kind of thing in Brent so far, but it is always possible that similar disturbances may come here, especially if (as reported) manyof the rioters were from other parts of London.

Willesden Town Centre Makeover

I understand that Brent has been successful in obtaining about £500,000 to do up Willesden Town Centre.  I haven't seen the details, but I gather the work is likely to be concentrated in the region of Willesden Green Library Centre.

Meanwhile, next stages in the development of Harlesden Town Centre will be discussed at a meeting in the Salvation Army building on Manor Park Road this evening.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Steam Engines

I have been reading recently a biography of George and Robert Stephenson, and was struck by two things.

Firstly, the way in which Northern England in the 1820s was a kind of Silicon Valley for industrialisation.  One has a real sense of a cluster of innovative engineers attached to the coal industry in particular, with all kinds of mechanical invention springing up around the country.

Secondly, as the book was published in 1960, the author assumes familiarity with steam engines in a way that no longer exists.  I don't think I have ever stood on a steam locomotive, or seen one outside a musuem, but the author (LTC Rolt) takes a lot of basic knowledge about them for granted.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Failure and the Tories

Welovelocalgovernment has accurate comment on why the Tories' policy of allowing failure becomes problematic for must have services.  They cite the example of Southern Cross, but examples can be found outside local government.  Surely, one of the problems around the London Underground is that the cost of a catastrophic failure would be so huge that a government would have to step in?  Similar arguments can be made for energy supplies (Remember the fuel crisis?) and our old friends (or at least David Cameron's old friends) the bankers.

Polling Station Review

Brent Council is reviewing polling stations and districts again to make sure that they are accessible and well placed.  You can find out more on the Brent Council web site.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Blue Labour and Women

I came across this posting on women and Blue Labour, the movement led by Lord Glasman.  The rather abstract nature of the language always makes me suspect things like this.  Using words like "discourse" and "narrative" seems to distance the debate from the everyday, which seems a shame as there is a lot to be said here.

The Tories are toying with abolishing maternity leave.    This is very much in line with David Cameron's actual views, that such regulations are a burden that should be stripped down to a minimum.  This takes little account of how regulations are important to the effective functioning of the market.  Look at what a success the "minimalist" approach turned out to be in regulating the banking sector, for example.

It also throws out all the social benefits that such regulations can have.  Aside from the benefits in terms of greater freedom, these regulations can be seen as a more realistic apportionment of actual costs.  The danger of the minimalist approach is that the costs of (for example) childcare are simply disguised in the informal economy.  We surely need to structure our economy in order to ensure that things that are necessary or desirable can be directly integrated into our model of economic growth, not shunted off the balance sheet.  That means depending on higher productivity and economic growth rather than tax avoidence and a race to the bottom.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Contaminated Land Grant

I was heartened to see that Brent has been successful in obtaining 1.4 million pound grant to clean up contaminated land.  This is despite the Con Dem government cutting the amount available for such clean ups in George Osborne's "emergency" budget last year.

However, I feel sorry for the other authorities who applied and did not get the grant.  As part of the process, they would have had to identify which land was contaminated.  That means that they would have to an area with a dangerous level of contaminant, "receptors" (jargon for people) and a pathway between the two.  once they do that, they are committed to cleaning the land up.  Therefore all the authorities that failed to get any grant now find themselves obilged to find the money to clean up the land, effectively a one off stealth tax on them.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Calls In _ Again

Later on this evening, I will be going to the Call In Committee to talk about street cleaning, and possibly the Festivals report.  The Brent Council rules on Call In were recently changed to make them less frequent.  The reason given for the street cleaning Call In is so that we can hold a public consultation on the varying the contract, whilst simultaneously implementing the changes, which is just about the most barking mad idea I have ever heard.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Business Rates

The Con Dem government is contemplating chnaging the way Business Rate (Non Domestic Rates) are distributed.  This post accurately describes some of the problems involved. Allowing each authority to keep their own rates would massively benefit, say, Westminister.  It would also beenefit any area where new businesses were setting up (East London?), but as local authroties have such little control over where businesses operate I doubt whether it would do much to improve growth. 

What it would do is incentivise the collection of business rates. As local authorities don't keep whatever they collect, they currently have no incentive to maximise collection.  That is quite a contrast with the Council Tax, where local authorities work hard to increase collection so that they can get their hands on the revenue.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Paving Repaired

The paving in Furness Road I reported on some time ago has now been repaired, although possibly not in a manner that the author of our Placemaking Guide would entirely approve of.  However, the footway on either side of Furness Road really needs to be repaired completely.