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Monday, 31 October 2011

Japanese Knotweed and House Sales

I had a bit of casework from an adjoining ward about Japanese Knotweed.  This is an extremely invasive plant that tends to kill off other growth and damage buildings.  As it has no natural enemies in the UK, it has spread and spread.  Getting rid of it is either very expensive, or very time consuming (or both). 

The casework concerned a householder who was about to exchange contracts, when the deal fell through.  The reason? The buyer mortgage lender refused to lend because there was knotweed in a nearby garden.  This is apparently now standard practice for two of our major mortgage lenders.  It leaves the seller in an impossible position, because they can't go and dig up someone else's garden.  If the owner doesn't get rid of the knotweed voluntarily, the only option is a civil action for nuisance which is enormously expensive and time consuming. As far as I know, there is no caselaw on whether an action has ever been successful for the removal of Japanese knotweed.

Scale of the Con Dem cuts

The sheer scale of the Con Dem cuts is covered by the Guardian here.  More are planned for next year, including further cuts in the grant to Brent Council (of about £26 million).  The effect on the deficit is largely offset by the rise in "automatic stabilisers" such as unemployment benefit.  Even in its own terms, the "austerity" agenda seems entirely self defeating, although Jean Claude Trichet _ the Eurozone's answer to Montagu Norman _ and George Osborne seem to disagree.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

No Legal Challenge

Having seen a copy of the Camden New Journal today, I find there is a very grumpy letter in it from the Camden Public Libraries Users Group, saying that they won't besuing the Council after all, because they couldn't get hold of a Legal Aid litigant in time.  He seems very unhappy about it, although I imagine tyaxpayers in general will be pleased.

A Non-answer on Libraries

Ed Vaizey, the Con Dem minister for libraries, was asked about his views on the future of the service recently by Dan Jarvis.  His answer can be found here. It reminds me of Lloyd George's dictum that the perfect parliamentary answer should be short, factually accurate and completely uninformative.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Neighbourhood Planning

The LGiU has published some useful advice about neighbourhood planning.  Personally, I think this entire agenda ignores the complexity of planning and genuinely consulting the community.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Camden Legal Challenge

I notice that that delightful firm Bindmans is acting in the legal challenge to Camden Council over their library strategy.  Their full letter before claim is here.  It is no doubt rather sad that I read this through in order to compare it to the Brent case, which it resembles in a number of ways.


On the comment below, the email mentioned below does refer to the FOI Act, and has been passed to an FOI officer to respond to, and yes I suspect Bindmans are looking at the library litigations as a commercial opportunity.

Thursday, 27 October 2011


Michael White has an extremely insightful piece on referendums, and how they are not all they seem here.

Housing Hypocrisy

Patrick Butler has a good blog on the hypocrisy and sheer ineptitude of the government's policies on social housing.  The government is seeking to bully the poor.  Why is that when rich people are threatened with higher tax Conservative politicians talk of "class war", but when poorer people are penalised they are silent?

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Borrowing Books in Brent

A myth appears to be growing that books borrowed from libraries now closed cannot be returned.  In fact, as regular borrowers know, a book borrowed from one Brent library can be returned to any other Brent library.  The deadline for returns has also been extended to 30th November to help anyone who finds it difficult to alter their routine.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Appeal Date for Libraries

I understand that the hearing for the Brent Libraries appeal is timed for 10 and 11 of November, which is pretty quick by Appeal Court standards.  Of course, we don't know when the actual judgement will be given.

Mortar Bomb

On Sunday a mortar bomb was left in the Victoria Road Civic Amenity Site.  Fortunately it was spotted and the bomb squad called. It turned out the main charge had been removed, although the percussive cap remained.  The bomb squad took it elsewhere to be disposed of safely.  What on earth makes people leave such a thing in a waste tip?

Monday, 24 October 2011

Eric Pickles Stepping Back

The New Local Government Network (NLGN) makes some suggestions about what Eric Pickles' £250 million for bin collections could be spent on instead.  Pretty much all of these sound a better idea than introducing ineffective waste collection to reduce recycling.

Energy Saving Breakfast

I forgot to mention what a success the Energy Saving Breakfast event last Wednesday was.  This was a business event sponsored by the Carbon Trust to help Brent businesses saving energy through lower heating bills, better waste management, improved lighting and so on.  It was set up by Brent Council's Climate Change Steering Group, which seeks to help businesses and residents reduce their carbon emissions and adapt to climate change.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Complaints at Brent Council

This story, about the very low number of complaints at Brent Council, deserves more publicity.  Officers have worked hard over some years to improve the handling of complaints, and to sort out any issues identified.  We should also remember that this improvement has come at a time of record pressure on budgets.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Boris and the Budget

Boris Johnson's budget comes under scrutiny here.  It paints a picture of a shallow populist piling up problems for the future through borrowing, refusing to use sustainable mechanisms like the Council Tax and indulging in pet schemes (possibly with an eye to re-election in mind).

Same old Boris.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Boris Johnson and Tory Troll

Tory Troll has further revelations about Boris Johnson here.  The resignation of Liam Fox, and the strange wa in which Michael Gove seems to manage his department through private email accounts and shadowy bodies makes me wonder if this kind of thing is more widespread than we know.

Sunday Opening at Brent Libraries

By the way, I notice that I have a letter published in the Independent here following a piece by Boyd Tonkin.  Articles like that of Mr Tonkin entirely ignore the improvements that are an inherent part of our Libraries strategy. 

These will start this Sunday, when (for the first time) Harlesden, Brent Town Hall and Kilburn libraries will open.  Along with our other three libraries they will be open from noon to 5pm.  In early November, we plan to start having Kilburn Library open on Wednesdays as well.  Thus, all our six libraries would then have seven day opening.  This is becoming increasingly unusual for local authority library services.


It is worth noting that the new Willesden Library not only has seven day opening, but on Sundays it opens from 10am, uniquely in Brent and very unusually anywhere.  

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Library Litigation Update

I thought a quick update on the library litigation would be in order.  The litigants put in their appeal on Tuesday, and an oral hearing was held on Wednesday morning.

The litigants have been granted leave to appeal, and the situation regarding buildings is effectively frozen as of Wednesday morning.  This means that the staff redundancy notices issued on Friday remain in force, putting an end to their uncertainity.  Five of the former libraries are boarded up, with Cricklewood, Barham and Tokyngton having had their books, IT and furniture removed.  Preston and Neasden remain boarded but with the contents still inside. 

Kensal Rise library is not boarded.  The litigants have undertaken to pay Brent Council to maintain a 24 hour security guard until the case is heard by the Court of Appeal.  We are hoping to have a hearing in mid-November.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Food Waste Recycling

We have further indications on the recycling service.  It looks like the food waste recylcing has gone up by about 11 tons per day compared to last October.  In other words, we were running at about 59 tons per day then, and are doing about 70 tons now.

I was expecting (and continue to expect) that food waste would be more troublesome, as 28,000 households in Brent have not previously had a food waste service at all so they have to adjust to an entirely new system.  The tonnage will also be somewhat reduced as we are now taking cardboard in the blue top bins.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Green Disappointment at Brent Executive

Disappointed that the Greens turning up to the Brent Executive last night sounded so negative about our Green Charter and our climate change approach in general.  As I pointed out, we have had a number of strong policies on climate change since coming to power.  These include:
  • Our new recycling system, that will massively reduce greenhouse gas emissions from waste management
  • Changes to our planning guidance to improve the environmental performance of new buildings
  • Improvements in the fuel efficiency of our transport fleet
  • The introduction of emissions based parking permits
  • Changes to public realm guidance for better adaptation to climate change
  • The promotion of district heating schemes
I was sorry to see that they did not stay for the report on district heating in South Kilburn, which one would have thought anyone wanting to cut carbon emissions would welcome.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Charging for EBook Lending

Previously, I have complained about Nottinghamshire's decision to charge for ebook lending.  In my view, this is the biggest threat to public libraries to have emerged over the past few weeks.  As ebooks gain a greater and greater share of reading, they should become more central to a library service.  The judgement given on Thursday had a passage referring to whether electronic mechanisms fell within the "section 7" duty (to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service).

The relevant passage is:

"The Council’s reliance on mitigation measures which included the use of the internet was criticised as falling outside the scope of s7 which focussed on “facilities for borrowing books and other material”. Of course, if provision of facilities such as the use of IT and the internet fall outside the scope of s7, then some of what the Council’s service currently provides would fall outside the scope of s7, and complaint could not be made were those facilities dropped. I do not see that as the Claimants’ case. In reality, a service which includes the provision of books and other materials by technology and goes beyond the loan of books or other physical items, or the provision of reading facilities on the printed page, falls within the scope of s7, which is not confined to the loan or use of physical items." (paragraph 116)

The judge appears to be saying that they do.  If so, it is not at all clear to me that Nottinghamshire County Council would have the legal power to charge.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Costs of the Brent Magazine

Tory government minister has been busy putting out press releases claiming that Councils spend too much money on publicity.  He claims the Brent Magazine costs £1000 per month.  Given that Brent has more than 100,000 households in it, that would be less than a penny per household.  Given how important the Magazine is for key policies like increasing recycling, that is money well spent.

If you have not had your copy, please contact the Council using these details.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Decentralised Energy in South Kilburn

One of the interesting reports up for the Executive on Monday is a scheme for district heating in South Kilburn.  This has significant carbon emissions and cost benefits, but you can only really make it work in a wholesale development.  Hence , all the new blocks in South Kilburn have a planning condition to link up with such a scheme if it goes ahead.  Another indication of the centrality of planning to regeneration.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Brent Libraries Judgement: Full Text

For those who are interested in the detailed arguments in the Brent Libraries case, they can be found in the full text of the judgement here.

Brent Libraries Judgement

By now, it is well known that the High Court decided in favour of Brent Council in the Libraries litigation.  The Judge implies, correctly I think, that the arguments put forward were not really appropriate for a judicial review.  He refused leave to appeal, which implies that he believes that the issues are clear cut and that the litigants' case was weak.

It is still possible for the litigants to ask the Court of Appeal for leave to appeal directly, although I don't see what the basis of such an appeal might be.  I also question whether the Legal Services Commission would wish to pay for further litigation in the light of the unequivocal nature of the judgement. 

The judge also refused an injunction to prevent the closures temporarily.  Since he had just ruled that Brent Council had made a lawful decision, it would have been odd to injunct us against carrying it out.

I am now keen to get on with the positive elements of the transformation strategy, which include:
  • Seven day opening at Harlesden, Kilburn and Barnhill libraries
  • Enhanced services for severely disabled people
  • An improved outreach service for children living in poverty
  • More study spaces for students
  • Better bookstock and IT facilities in each library
  • An enhanced online offer

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Unfashionable Defence

Political offices are defended here.  I am sure that the author is right that this area may come under threat in many authorities, and that this is likely to lead to poorer quality political leadership.  I suspect that Eric Pickles and the Tories would actively welcome this as eroding local government and helping to shrink the state.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Teflon Boris

Tory Troll suggests that Boris Johnson is wasting vast amounts on pet projects.  What I find puzzling is that he can do not just this, but also have a string of poor appointments (often apparently linked to cronyism, as in the unlamented example of Bertha Joseph), yet not pay a price in popularity.

Differing Philosophies

Different approaches to the problems of life in the cartoon below:

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Housing Disaster

I get the impression that most people have still not realised how much damage will be done to people in London by the government's housing benefit changes.  Dave Hill has been pursuing this issue in a number of posts, but his latest on the subject seems to indicate that not even the Tory ministers know what they are doing.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Recycling Round Up

The new recycling scheme seems to be going well.  All bins should now have been delivered, and I am told that the tonnage yield looks good (although it is syill early days. 

I have come across a few frequently asked questions:

Can I get another recycling bin, or do I have to share?  The bins were allocated on an estimate of what each household would need.  When we were doing the consultation, many people were concerned that there would be too many bins. Yhe sharing of one bin between two flats was considered the best solution.  However, if you feel you need another recycling bin, you can ask for one by phoning 020 8937 5050.

What do I do with the old green box?  Whatever you like.  Brent Council suggest re-use _ perhaps as a planter or simply general storage.  If you don't want to re use it, you can phone the Council to take it away.

Can I put shredded paper in the new recycling bin? Yes.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Brent Council Transport Award

I understand that Brent Council has been given the National Transport Award as best authority for road safety, traffic management & enforcement.  This is a tribute to the huge reduction in traffic accidents in the Borough over the past few years.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Eric Pickles and Localism

Here is an additional list of why Eric Pickles is wrong on weekly bin collections.  It also raises the issue of why he is introducing a scheme that seems to cut across his various "localist" statements.  The writer is in fact much kinder than I would be.  I think Eric Pickles does as he does because he believes in localising blame but centralising control, in the same way that bankers like to nationalise losses, but privatise profits.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Tories Backsliding on the Environment

Caroline Lucas has some largely justified criticism of George Osborne's backsliding on the Environment.  She could also mention the peculiar position of Eric Pickles

The government has a long established policy, going back many years, of using the landfill tax to encourage more recycling.  The tax makes disposing of waste by landfill far more expensive than recycling.  For most local authorities, the best way to increase recycling is alternate weekly collections (as has just been adopted in Brent).    Yet Pickles is trying to retard this move to greater recycling by offering a cash incentive not to do it.  Were he successful, which I am sure he will not be, he would also add to the UK's greenhouse gas emissions, since waste in landfill is a major source.

Incidentally, at this time when the Tories and Lib Dems have decided to cut budgets so savagely, how did they find £250 million to pay for Eric Pickles' vanity project?

Thursday, 6 October 2011

EBooks and Libraries

Whilst waiting for a date to be set for the Libraries judgement, I read that Nottinghamshire County Council are due to start charging for each time they lend an ebook. This is a fundametally unwelcome change in library provision.  To my mind an ebook is just another form of book, so charging for each loan goes against the whole ethos of a free library service.  It as if you started charging for loans of hardbacks, whilst claimi9ng that you were still providing a proper service via free loans of paperbacks.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Liberal Democrats Pick Wrong Side on Recycling

Brent Liberal Democrats seem to have finally come down against our new recycling system, according to the Willesden Times.  When the Tories put forward a motion against the collections, the Liberal Democrats chose to abstain.  Presumably, their new stance is an opportunist u-turn, rather like their change over emissions based parking charges

To reiterate, the new system is an improvement because it leads to more recycling, lower disposal costs and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.  When Brent's recycling rate goes up, the Liberal Democrats will be left on the side of a policy that fewer and fewer authorities defend, and presumably they will eventually have to backtrack as they did over ASBOs

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Cllr Lesley Jones at Harlesden Library

My colleague Lesley Jones is giving a talk about her time in Nigeria at Harlesden Library on 12 October as part of Black History Month.

Brent Council Budget Cuts

Here is a fairly good stab at explaining the difficulties around local government budgets.  Council budgets sometimes seem like trying to solve the Schliesvig-Holstein Question.  As well as increasing inflation, growing demographic pressures and reduced grant, Brent also has to pay into its pension fund for an increasing number of pensioners, and a dwindling number of people in the workforce contributing.  The long term pressures are even worse than the headline figures.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Eric Pickles and Alternate Weekly Collections

Eric Pickles offer of money for us not to go aherad with alternate weekly collections fails to make sense at any level.  He has offered £250 million, which is roughly £1 million for every authority operating alternate weekly collections if they agree to switch to weekly collections.

Firstly, it does not make financial sense.  Going with our current plans should save us about £5 million over that period.  So going the Pickles route would cost us money.  Secondly, we would have to order a new fleet of vehicles and pay for the crews.  Aside from the financial cost, that would take a long time to organise.  We would also have to launch a new publicity campaign to educate the public.  Thirdly, weekly collections lead to less recycling and less waste minimisation, so we would fail to achieve our manifesto committment to increase recycling.  Finally, landfill is a major contributor to grenhouse gases, so more landfill would go against our climate chnage objectives.

It amazes me that the Tory/Lib Dem government area pushing such an awful policy at the same time as imposing huge spending cuts in every other area.

New Bin Collection Today

Brent's new bin collection system starts today.  There are bound to be teething problems, so please be patient whilst they are worked through.  Once the system is fully in place and working, we should increase the Borough's recycling rate to more than 50%. 

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Brent's Parking Enforcement

Although there is a perception that Brent's parking wardens are overzealous, they are given training to be reasonable.  I frequently meet residents who refuse to believe this, but if you look at parking appeals across London, Brent has tthe second best record of the 33 London Authorities.  In other words fewer of our tickets are overturned on appeal than anywhere else.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Surface Water Flooding

I expect there will be more problems with surface water flooding over the Winter.  Many assume that this is a Council responsibility, but the reality is more complicated.  The Council is responsible for keeping the gullies clear, but the actual drains belong to the water utility.  I suspect this lies behind the not particularly co-ordinated approach.  Hopefully, we will be able to work with Thames Water to better develop a system to prevent localised flooding.