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Monday, 31 December 2012

Stagnating Economy

Ending the year with Robert Skidelsky's assessment of where economic policy went wrong.  I think he overestimates the universality of the error.  A lot of people saw the likely effect of austerity but George Osborne persisted anyway.  Less obvious was the limited effect of quantitative easing which has failed to stimulate the economy or lead to higher inflation.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Clues Criticised

This week's Willesden and Brent Times carries a letter criticising David Clues for suggesting that the Anglican Church "transferred" him to Brighton as if he had no choice in the matter.  The letter suggests, I believe correctly, that Anglican ministers normally apply for jobs.  They don't simply get put in another diocese.

As he sips a pre-prandial sherry, perhaps the Rev. Clues might reflect that staying on as a Brent councillor having moved to Brighton really just isn't worth it, and it would be better for his own reputation if he just stood down.

Tubbs Road Pocket Park Water Supply

I understand that Tubbs Road pocket park has finally had a water supply connected.  It is quite extraordinary how long you have to persist with these things before something happens.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Bookshops and Libraries

A BBC report suggests that bookshops are used by many customers for window shopping before they go home to buy the same books online for much lower prices. If so, this would be very sad.  However, it does make me wonder about the future role of libraries.

I know of some American evidence that libraries in the USA perform a similar function.  Users that a first look at a book in a library, and subsequently purchase it from a retailer.  I am not aware of any UK research on this, but it is a key argument in suggesting that the book industry should see libraries as allies in building demand for books rather than as enemies seeking to cannibalise their sales.  Libraries have Ben particularly attacked for this in terms of ebook sales.

If one were to accept such a view of the role of libraries, it would be confirmation of the rightness of Brent in maintaining its book stock (and substantively increasing it in Kilburn Library).  It might also help inform the design of libraries.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Walking and Planning

The Guardian has piece on walking today.  This is a much neglected area of urban planning. One of the key intentions of the Harlesden Town Centre development is to make the Centre friendlier to pedestrians.

It's animating principle is the "road user hierarchy" which tries to arbitrate between the many groups that use a universal service like a street.  The hierarchy puts pedestrians first and motorists at the bottom.  This is obviously quite a stark choice, but then decisions about a finite universal resource frequently are.

The consequences of ignoring pedestrians in street design can be seen in places like South Kilburn, where the big tower blocks put up in the 1960s completely fail to create a sense of place.  An artist told me that she reacted very well to them as sculptural forms, which is no doubt what the designers intended, but they simply do not work as places to live.  Because, the streets are inherently unwelcoming, people simply use them for transit from A to B.  This means that they effectively disintegrate the community, which has no natural points of interaction_ feeding into all kinds of social degeneration.

A separate issue is the relationship between motor traffic and pedestrians. Currently, many of our urban areas are designed around cars, and the intention of developments like Harlesden is to shift the emphasis back towards people.  Sometimes indeed, measures like guardrails that are intended to safeguard people, actually endanger them.  The worst example I know of are the rails on Station Approach by Willesden Junction station, which force people to walk into the road.  Hopefully, these will be gone by June.

We have a policy now to try to ensure these kind of quality of life issues are taken into account, but it becomes more and more difficult as the resources available to the Council diminish.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Mixing Traditions

Modern Christmas appears to be becoming ever more of a mélange of different cultural traditions.  According to the Economist, American Jews are adopting Christmas In there own ways.  Muslim families have long eaten turkey at Christmas, and I have noticed that the British Christmas appears to be becoming ever more Americanised.  Well before the day this year, I saw cranberry sauce on sale everywhere.  For much longer "Santa Claus" has been easing out the English "Father Christmas".  I suppose this has been going on for centuries, not least with the many different roles Christmas trees have played down the years.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

The Alternative to Hollowing Out Libraries

I see that Derbyshire County Council have made the opposite choice to Brent in deciding to "hollow out" their services as an alternative to closure.  This will be much easier for them politically, but lead to a long term decline, as I have argued before.

For a while they can get along with cutting opening hours and book stock, as they are currently doing. They can also reduce wider services, for example lower grade computers, fewer electronic materials and higher charges for discretionary things like ebook lending.  They can also increase fines for late books, and safeguard their revenue by making those books harder to renew (for example, by not allowing online or telephone renewals).  All these are short term measures that can keep them going for a bit, but they all erode the quality of the library experience for the user.  They also create a new baseline of lower expectation.  In the pattern of savage cuts to Council funding, it will be difficult for any future administration in Derbyshire to restore book buying to the previous level; lower book stock will simply become the new norm.  Indeed I believe Gloucestershire had already cut back it's book buying dramatically. I suspect that they then decided to start closing branches because they could no longer obtain savings from the book budget.  In other words, this pattern of across the board cuts in services may well simply delay branch closures rather than prevent them.

At the same time, the technological changes that the book industry and society are going through are as dramatic as the rise of printing itself.  If libraries don't engage with the ongoing spread of digital information in every walk of life, they will simply become irrelevant. Libraries without up to date technology will not be able to help people into the job market or to help people with educational requirements because they simply won't have the technology that education and increasing numbers of companies need.

All this brings me back to the Brent answer to these problems.  Instead of salami slicing across the service we are concentrating our increasingly limited resources on a smaller number of buildings.  Each of these buildings will be in a transport node, preferably co-located with other services, and with an excellent range of library services available for as many hours as possible.  We will also use an outreach service and other means to try to draw in as many users as possible to make maximum use of library resources, and (incidentally) maintain public support for the service.


Comments below seem to be on a different subject to the post.  I was interested that Derbyshire, and earlier Southampton, both framed the problem in the same way as me independently.  The real choice facing authorities bearing the brunt of Eric Pickles brutal attack on local government is should their library services absorb the pressure through cuts in staff and services (as Derbyshire and Southampton have chosen to do), or by prioritising services at the expense of buildings?

Monday, 24 December 2012

Welfare Change Delays

On the eve of Christmas, we learn of delays and disfunction in the Colition government's welfare changes.  Aside from the sheer brutality of the changes, the speed with which the government is trying to push them through is likely to lead to bureaucratic chaos. By the way, I notice that Ms Teather is continuing her u-turn on the issue. I suspect that had Mr Cameron chosen to keep her in a ministerial job she would now be quite happy to stay silent as her constituents suffered.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Father Christmas Under Modern Management

Flip Chart Fairy Tales imagines Father Christmas using modern management techniques here.  Unfortunately, Father Christmas still seems to use off fashioned face to face when he should be seeking channel shift to more cost effective online mechanisms.


The last couple of days have seen queues of extraordinary length outside John Line the butchers in Harrow Road.  It sets me thinking about how to promote the health of shopping areas, which are being doubly hit by the rise of Internet shopping and the ongoing recession.

I don't think that there can just be one solution.  Looking at Harlesden Town Centre we do have a major advantage in the range of our food shops and we should seek to capitalise on that.   Brent Council is also promoting a number of other measures, such as the use of meanwhile space and encouraging networking among businesses, but there is no doubt that the government's austerity and  technological change give major headwinds.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

More Council Budget Cuts on the Way

Eric Pickles announcement of local government funding looks as if the funding of Brent will continue to fall.  It is difficult to be clear at this stage, as the government deliberately makes the announcement in a way to make the details as obscure as possible, But it looks as if a fall in 2013 will be followed by a much bigger fall in 2014.  This will also be true for lots of other Councils in poor areas, although much less so for Councils in richer areas.

There is no doubt that this is driving some Councils towards collapse, and that before long they will be unable to carry out their statutory as well as non-statutory services.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Another Coalition Power Grab

Our mendacious government continues to pretend to be devolving decision making whilst doing the opposite.  The latest proposal, now out to consultation, is to allow the Secretary of State to designate certain planning authorities as too slow to make decisions and then take over their planning powers for major applications (more than about 10 properties).

I suspect the main effect of this power grab would be that the SoS wold find that he was being asked to decide far more cases than he had staff to deal with, and decisions would have much longer delays and probably worse quality decisions.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Ebook Lending in Brent

Our ever entrepreneurial library staff are using Christmas to advertise our ebook lending service.  Only about a third of English library services lend ebooks, and some of them charge for loans.  Brent's service is free.

Andy Gale and Government Mendacity

An extraordinary tale of government mendacity is told by Patrick Butler here.  There is surely something desperate in the DCLG trying to deny its links to an adviser as soon as he is quoted explaining the obvious effects of the government's housing policy.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Murad Qureshi on Air Quality

I am not sure the photo op was well advised, but Murad Qureshi raises a serious point about air quality.  It is greatly to Murad's credit that he has persisted on the air quality issue for such a long time.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Town Centre Problems

Out door knocking on Sunday, I came across a number of issues around crime, anti-social behaviour, prostitution and noise pollution.  Some of these are already under investigation, but the nature df these things tends to be intractable.  Just as I did with Willesden Junction's Station Approach, I Intend to pursue these, but it will take time.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Kilburn Library Resident Artist

I am just back from a talk given by Anya Beaumont on her experience as a resident artist in Kilburn Library.  I got a real sense that, if money can be found, resident artists could add an enormous amount of value to our libraries. Anya spent a lot of time in the library itself, but also went out to the Granville Centre and St Mungos in Chichester Road.

Futures for Local Government

I still get the impression that many people just don't get the extent to which the current government's cuts aren't just temporary.  Although it had no mandate for such a change at the General Election, the coalition really is trying to enforce a complete transformation, possibly without understanding what it is trying to transform us all into.  The Guardian has some interesting speculation about possible futures here.

Sunday, 16 December 2012


Just approved a couple of comments to this blog.  My policy is to approve unless there is a positive reason not to e.g. Libel, offensiveness etc.

However, I am often struck by the certainty of the comments and their anonymity.  They often make factual statements without evidence (for example, the idea that I or other members did not challenge the WLWA accounts, which is flatly untrue).  They are also remarkable in that the people making them fail to identify themselves. The comments I post here are clearly attributable to me. Why don't other people choose to stand up for what they say they believe in?

Social Networking and it's Annoyances

I recall many years ago I set up a Facebook account in order to access a particular site. My usage (such as it was) ceased with that site. Nonetheless, I continue to get a stream of marketing rubbish from Facebook to this day.  I am sure that the same would be true of twitter and so on.

With phone numbers, which also used to be plagued in this way, one could sign up for  This stands for telephone preference service and allows the user to block out much of this annoyance. Indeed, even the companies themselves appear to have worked out that the calls are counterproductive and given up. How much longer before Facebook wakes up to the same message?

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Labour's Housing Review

The Labour Party has launched a new review into improving the private rented sector for housing.  Such a review is long overdue.  Having said that the document appears longer on diagnosis than on solutions, but at least Labour is trying to address a problem that affects large numbers of people living standards.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Multi-layered Democracy in London

Yesterday I went to the London Councils Transport and Environmental Committee, and later today I am going to the West London Waste Authority.  I doubt whether even councillors and Council officer fully understand all the various layers of London government and how they interlink, which cannot be good for transparent local democracy.

Incidentally looking round the room yesterday, at London TEC, I saw only two women members including the Chair Catherine West and very few non-whites.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

David Miliband on Marine Biodiversity

David Miliband reminds us of the importance of marine biodiversity here.  He tackles it from the angle of protecting dwindling resources, which is fair enough.  Personally, I would be inclined to a more Romantic view of preserving the wonders of nature.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Effective Street Gritting

A quick look around Kensal Green this morning suggest to me that the Council contractors have been very quick in getting gritting out on to the pavements. Well done.

Library usage Roundup

The Guardian has a useful roundup on library usage around the UK.  Most striking for me is the dramatic fall off in web site visits, which is completely contrary to my expectations.  After rapid rises up to a couple of years ago, web site visits have gone into a sharp reverse at the same time that most services become ever more active online.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Council Tax Support Scheme Decided

Last night, Brent Council decided on its new Council Tax Support scheme to replace the national scheme that the government is abolishing.  This is a particularly outrageous example of the Liberal Democrats and Tories hitting the poor.  Not only are Councils told to design their own scheme, but the funding to pay for the scheme is automatically reduced by 10%.  There is no offer of increases in future years so we can expect the finance to be further reduced as inflation bites.

This forces Councils either to cut spending by even more, or to recover the reduced revenue by widening the Council Tax to people who have hitherto been exempt.

Last night, I thought even some of the Liberal Democrats felt ashamed as they listened to Cllr Paul Lorber's posturing on the subject.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Street Gritting Update

As cold weather is forecast, I thought I would do a quick update on Brent Council's preparations.  Brent has about 2,400 tons of grit in stock, which is more than the Borough has ever had to use. 326 street bins are available.  Further details on dealing with winter problems in Brent can be found here.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Councils And the Arts

Newcastle is going through an unwelcome experiment in cutting the Council's entire arts budget.  I imagine that is heartbreaking for all the people who having building up Newcastle's arts infrastructure over the years.  The buildings may remain, but what. Use are they without money to pay for the activities within them? Making up the shortfall from elsewhere is likely to be difficult.  Areas outside London struggle to achieve outside funding, and Council funding often provides a stamp of approval and some seed money that can be essential to drawing in additional resources.

That is why I am keen to avoid a similar fate in Brent. Our arts programme is much more modest than that of Newcastle, but it does a huge amount of good out of all proportion to its funding.  Most important, however, in these times when all services need an economic justification, the arts have potential to generate employment and wider regeneration that is becoming increasingly important to urban areas.  The main trouble in making this argument is that it draws heavily on softer measures rather than hard data.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Cutting Business Rates

Friday's posting on the government's cynical offloading of Council Tax Support to local Councils has put me in mind of some of the other wheezes that the Tories and Liberal Democrats are using to deflect criticism for the failure of their austerity policies.

One of these, which has been covered elsewhere, is the ability to vary business rates.  The government is actively suggesting that Councils should do this, but at the same time ministers know there is record in raising those rates year after year, and that the areas in most need are in local authorities that have been worst hit by changes to the government grant.

If only ministers would direct the ingenuity they display in blaming others to actually helping to revive economic growth.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Council Tax Changes on Monday

One of the many ways in which the Tory and Liberal Democrat government is hitting people by stealth is through changes to the Council Tax.  It "allows" each authority to design its own discount scheme in place of the existing national scheme.  However, the funding is being cut by 10%.  In Brent that is about £5 million.  That either has to come from cuts in spending or reducing the amount of discount available.

Brent Council will be making this decision on Monday evening.

The Guardian gives a rather generous interpretation of very late changes that the government has announced.  In practice, these changes, which in some ways seem to go against the professed objectives of the scheme, are so late in the day that it would be enormously difficult to take them on board.  The Guardian rightly observes that they came too late for an effective consultation.  They are also very late for software to be changed and properly tested.

They are also very late in terms of getting people who have never paid Council Tax before engaged in the process.  The Council estimates that, if the draft scheme to be debated on Monday is voted through, this would amount to more than 20,000 people.  The Council is likely to set up a phone bank to contact as many of these people as possible before the Council Tax bills start arriving in mid March.  There is also a major programme to try get the message though via wider publicity and door knocking, as well as a team of people for one to one sessions at the One Stop shops.  All that is best organised with as much notice as possible.

Of course, it is also coming on top of all the government's other benefit changes in 2013.  Either the government don't understand how difficult it is to implement its demands, or it is indifferent to the consequences for people on the ground.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Where George Osborne went Wrong

Not the Treasury View has the most incisive analysis of the Autumn Statement I have come across. It is naturally gloomy.  The present government made fundamentally wrong decisions a couple of years ago, and now people at large are paying the price.  I think even Osborne knows this, but cannot admit it for political reasons.  Would that some of his cheerleaders became as realistic.

Air Quality and Boris Johnson

Dave Hill gives us an update on Boris Johnson's evasions over poor air quality.  Brent's air quality has actually improved over the past few years.  This is largely down to transport and planning policies that promote virtually any form of transport other than the car.  Boris Johnson's programme of hiking public transport fares by eye watering amounts seem to go in the opposite direction.  Meanwhile, he engages in subterfuges of the kind Dave Hill describes to avoid confronting the problem.  That may work for Boris Johnson as a short term political fix, but just allows poor quality to persist and thousands of Londoners to die or fall ill unnecessarily.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Improving Gully Cleaning

I often get complaints about the quality of gully cleaning in Brent.  I always pass these on, and various individual gullies are cleaned as a result.  However, it has long seemed to me to be a systematic problem, especially in the south of the Borough.  I am particularly thinking of Kensal Green, Queens Park, Harlesden, Kilburn and Willesden, but there may well be others.

Does anyone have specific examples of problem areas where gullies are blocked?

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Southampton, Brent and library opening hours

Over in Southampton the local authority has opted to cut back library opening hours.  The reaction is very hostile, but there still seems to be no recognition that central government cuts are forcing these kind of decisions on Councils.  The Southampton representative poses the question in very similar terms to the way I responded to Cllr Paul Lorber.  The difference is that we chose fewer locations; they are spreading their resources more thinly over their existing locations.

That really is the kind of stark choice local authorities face.

Monday, 3 December 2012

David Cameron and Selective Judicial Review

Speaking to someone recently, she said that David Cameron wanted to restrict judicial review.  I think a closer reading of his comments is that wants to restrict judicial review of central government (I.e. his decisions).  There is no indication of him wanting to restrict judicial review of other bodies.

This surely indicates the present government's them and us mentality.

Rules that they find burdensome are unacceptable.  The same rules can happily be imposed on others.

The comments on equality are almost self parody.  We no longer wil have a legal requirement for equality impact assessment (we never did), because "smart people in Whitehall" decide.  We seem to be going all the way back to Patrick Gordon Walker and "The Man in Whitehall really does know best".

I wonder what happened to localism?

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Boris Johnson Hypocrisy on Housing

Dave Hill has a piece on Boris Johnson's hypocrisy on housing here.  The rocketing price of housing all over London is leading to massive overcrowding problems and will also create knock on effects for health, educational achievement, domestic violence and so on.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Update on Willesden Junction Station Approach

Yesterday morning I met with a Brent Transport officer about local transport matters.  There has been a rumour going around that the work to Station Approach might be delayed or even abandoned, but he assured me that this was not so. 

The design team are still working on the exact design.  The current version has a pavement on both the Brent and Ealing sides although the Brent side will be wider.  However details are still subject to change.


The comment below asks for clarification.  My understanding is that, at the moment, the southern pavement is to be narrowed and the Brent side pavement to be widened.  This should allow more room on the northern side for pedestrians (especially after the removal of those absurd guardrails) but also sufficient room for buses (not least to avoid them mount the pavements).  Since more than 90% of users come along the Brent side, it seems obvious to me that that is the side that needs the wider pavement.

However, detailed design is still being worked on and therefore there may be changes.