Search This Blog

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

The Guardian has a brief article on the passing of political power here.  It is an old story, but I can almost feel sorry for her.

Wrottesley Road Ramps

I have had people ask me about the rather unsightly ramps that are left on some of the street corners of Wrottesley Road following the recent pavement improvements.  When I chased this up, I was told that the road surface at those points is going to be raised as part of the new 20mph zone that will stretch from Wrottesley Road up to Donnington Road.  The raised areas will come close to the top of the kerbs, and help to automatically slow down the traffic.  The ramps are therefore temporary.

Barham Park Call In

Attended the Barham Park Call in last night, answering questions on behalf of the committee. The first surprise was that Cllr Paul Lorber did not show up.  Perhaps he has finally realised that being the bidder to rent a building owned by the Council and a Councillor involves a conflict of interest.  Or perhaps he feels that he has delighted the rest of us with his presence enough already recently.  Either explanation is pure speculation on my part.

We had a lengthy discussion, largely about procurement issues.  I think the main point to grasp is that the governance of Barham Park has been greatly improved by the new committee arrangement; Barham Park now has a clear way forward; as a result of the way forward, Barham Park is getting about £600k spent to improve it.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Coalition in Islington

At the weekend I went to a very funny comedy based around the dilemmas of Nick Clegg. It is called Coalition and is at the Pleasance Theatre in Islington.  I enjoyed it greatly and recommend it.  It is very topical as it involves a Liberal Democrat leader modelled on Clegg seeing his party fall apart, especially after a disastrous by election. The upcoming by election in Eastleigh may soon make the whole scenario historical rather than topical.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Brent Budget Voted Through

As Nick Clegg's position unravels, Brent Council met to vote through its budget last night.  I never find these debates either informative or enjoyable.  The opposition don't present any alternative, and on this occasion didn't even pretend to.  Although the way central government cuts play out, this year's budget is relatively easy. Next year a £20 million cut is being imposed, which coming on top of the previous cuts, is bound to severely affect the Council's operations.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Rennard and the Women

A huge number of accusations have suddenly broken loose about Chris Rennard and sexual misconduct.  Lord Rennard denies all of them. My view is that we do not yet have enough information about the details of all this despite having several statements.  In particular what did people like Nick Clegg know, and what did they do with the information?  At best, the Liberal Democrats seem confused and ineffectual.

Some of the suggestions published in the newspapers suggest that any ambitious female Liberal Democrat candidate would go to a training school session hosted by Lord Rennard, which some of the newspapers have referred to as a "casting couch".  Were the Liberal Democrats to force women to submit to sexual misconduct as an effective condition of going forward as a parliamentary candidate, it would surely expose their supposed commitment to equalities as a sham.

Of course, a secondary effect of all this might be to influence the Eastleigh by election.  I have no idea what such an effect be.


Cathy Newman, who originally broke the story, has raised some more questions following Nick Clegg's statement.  I am beginning to wonder whether Nick Clegg will still be Liberal Democrat leader by the end of this week.


Repling to the comment. No I really am concerned about abuse of power (which is what I think these allegations are about, rather than sex).  Lord Rennard, whatever the truth of the allegations he denies, was in a uniquely powerful position which has no parallel in Labour or Tory circles.  If the allegations are true, this may have disrupted Liberal Democrat efforts to promote women as MPs across the nation.  I also think it raises genuine issues about the effectiveness of the Liberal Democrats as an institution and Nick Clegg in particular.  I actually think the effect on the Eastleigh by election is the least interesting part of the story.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Willesden Library Centre Gets Planning Permission

I should report that Willesden Green Library Centre was approved by the Planning Committee On Thursday.  This is important for all kinds of Council activity. Obviously, having first class library facilities was a central feature of Brent's Libraries Transformation Project.  Since it had by far our highest footfall, we know that Willesden Library was in a good location, but the design of the building left much to be desired.

The new development also affirms our commitment to the Brent Musuem, and is earmarked as a key venue in our arts strategy.  The rebuild will also help to improve the quality of the one stop shop facilities.  Less obviously, the new building will have a greatly enhanced environmental performance, and will serve as an alternative to the Civic Centre in case of a major emergency affecting that building.

I would also add that the existing centre doesn't interact with its surroundings?  It has a lot of dead frontage.  The area between the car park and the building itself was presumably designed as some kind of performance space, but I have never seen anything being performed there.  The area to the front is routinely used by street drinkers who many people find intimidating.

Theatre Cuts

The Guardian argues that the cuts in theatre budgets will have a much wider economic effect on creative industries in general.  I think this right not just in theatres but also more generally.  The present cuts will reduce growth for many years to come in a kind of reverse multiplier effect. The lower training for the arts will lead to a damaged theatre industry and the reduced theatre industry will harm social and economic activities around areas that benefit from it as Kilburn benefits the Tricycle.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Shahrar Ali and Hypocrisy

I only just picked up this story prompted by Green Party spokesman Shahrar Ali.  He is complaining that two Liberal Democrat councillors should resign their seats as they now live outside the Borough. At the time of their election, they were Brent residents.

Fair enough you might imagine.  The Labour Party has long had a rule that any Labour council candidates should live in the authority they represent.

However, glancing through the 2006 election results for Bloomsbury ward in Camden we find none other than Shahrar Ali.  On the same day, we find Shahrar Ali just one vote off the bottom of the poll in Queens Park in Brent.  Yes they are the same person. I recall checking the nomination papers at the time.  Perhaps he scored so lowly because he spent so much time travelling between the two.

I have pointed out this chutzpah before, but others might call it hypocrisy.  Dr Ali attached a comment to my original post that I thought just made hime sound smug.  Perhaps someone so shameless should consider joining the Liberal Democrats himself.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Harrow West By Election

I spent much of yesterday helping in the by election in Harrow West. Apart from the extreme cold it was pleasant enough. Unusually, they have left the count to today so we still don't know the result.


The result is now out, with a handsome win for Labour's Christine.  Well done.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Benefit Hints from Southwark

Some of the problems around benefit changes are hinted at in a recent Guardian article.   The remarkable thing about the government's benefit changes is that, by implementing them in a rush together, a tsunami of problems is being deliberately created.  The Summer is likely to see widespread avoidable hardship unless the government changes course.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Barham Park Again

I gather the Liberal Democrats have called in the Barham Park decision.  it is surely remarkable how much energy Cllr Paul Lorber devotes to trying to stop Brent Council from functioning.  Most local councillors would be delighted to have more than half a million spent on a park within their ward.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Brent Connects in Wembley

I have been asked to speak at the next round of Brent Connects in Wembley, which is the new name for the Area Consultative forums.  The subject is the entire Environment and Neighbourhood Services portfolio, which sounds like rather too much for one night.  It occurs to me that if they are not too clear on the extent the portfolio is, other people may also be unclear so I thought I would summarise the main blocks:

Waste and Recycling
Waste and recycling is probably the most obvious part of the portfolio.  This covers the collection and disposal of municipal waste from more than 100,000 households in Brent.  It also tends to cross over into street cleaning and dumped rubbish.  This means that I am also Brent's representative on the West London Waste Authority.

Parks and Trees
I also cover sports, parks and cemeteries. Brent has about 85 parks from the really big ones like Fryent Country Park to small spaces like Tubbs Pocket Park.  We also have four cemeteries, and two Church of England cemeteries that we look after at St Johns Sudbury and St Mary's Church End.  We also oversee the Borough's sports centres and organise various sporting events in the parks.  I also cover the grass verges and street trees, as well as having a somewhat nebulous responsibility for the public realm.

Green Charter Issues
This term is a bit of a catch all for all kinds of environmental issues. They include water sustainability, Fairtrade, biodiversity, animal welfare and other things that tend to struggle for political attention.

The most high profile part of this agenda is the climate change bit.  We are trying to cut carbon emissions, but also mitigate against climate change already built into the system.  This tends to be a cross cutting area that covers a wide range of other concerns, such as street lighting for instance.

Libraries, Arts and Heritage
Libraries are an area where we have adopted a high profile transformation policy which is finally starting to bear fruit.  It has certainly absorbed a huge amount of political attention.  We also have a musuem in Willesden, and an archive service.  A small but significant part of the budget is devoted to arts, which covers all kinds of things from the Tricycle Theatre to Brent Dance Month to artist in residence schemes.

Regulatory Services
This is a catch all for all kinds of services that tend to keep a low profile until your lasagne turns out to be full of horsemeat.  It also includes trading standards, noise nuisance, health and safety, licensing, the mortuary service and environmental health (which covers the increasingly high profile area of air quality).

Anyway, covering all that lot in one evening is going to be a tall order.  The department also has a separate spokesman for highways and transport, which covers a range of other activities that I tend to cross into from time to time, and of course all Executive members take an interest in the broad sweep of policies across the piece.


I should also mention two areas covered that don't fit into the main themes.  My portfolio covers Brent Transport services, that delivers people in special need either to schools or day care centres.  I also have a kind of nebulous championship of the Welsh Harp Education Centre.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Defending Local People

I spend a lot of time concerned at how the current Tory government, so shamefully supported by Sarah Teather, is deliberately destroying local government.  As with the Tory austerity programme, this seems to me to work directly against the people of this country.  The best expression I have found of this viewpoint is in the speech given by Islington leader Cllr Catherine West here.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Harlesden Job Centre and the Willesden Hippodrome

I mentioned Harlesden Job Centre Plus a few days ago.  The area next to this (the old service station site) is going to be redeveloped soon with a much smaller building than proposed in the past.  The Job Centre itself is huge in comparison. The reason for its enormous scale (compared to the rest of High Street Harlesden) is that it is on the old site of the Willesden Hippodrome.  As the Willesden Hippodrome (destroyed by bombs in the War) was so big, the replacement building could be big.

By the way, hippodrome is one of those words that have completely changed their meaning. Willesden Hippodrome meant a music hall.  In the classical world, a hippodrome was an arena for horse racing. Greek for horse being "hippo".

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Progress at Barham Park

We made some good progress on Barham Park despite Cllr Lorber's peculiar misbehaviour.  I have explained before the slightly convoluted constitutional status of this committee.

The good news is that we have some substantial progress after the years of neglect under Paul Lorber.  We decided to let most of the building to a tenant called ACAVA.  This is a charity that promotes the visual arts in West London, so it seems a good fit with the priorities of the Barham Trust, which is supposed to promote the recreation and amenity of Brent residents.  We also agreed to spend the Trust's capital on a number of repairs to the buildings, and to upgrade the park.  The capital comes from selling off two houses a couple of years ago, and the amount we have to spend is about £600k.  We also approved a twenty year plan for the park.  Although we don't have funding to more than make a start on the park improvements, this is much more progress than Barham Park has seen for many years.  Finally, we agreed that the position of the Veterans Club should be regularised.

Whilst we were doing all this we had to put up with Cllr Lorber trying to interrupt and shout over people, as well as making various scurrilous accusations against Council officers.  He seemed to want to get the whole meeting bogged down in various legalistic details.  Of course, I have seen him this way before, but this particular night was his worst for quite a while.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Vaizey Gets It Wrong

I see that Ed Vaizey has told the House of Commons that Brent's library strategy was developed several years ago, before the present government. In this he is simply wrong.  The strategy was developed between mid 2010 and April 2011.  Had Ed Vaizey's assertion been accurate, the High Court (and subsequently the Court of Appeal) would have been unlikely to have upheld the Council decision.

Ice Age Art at the British Museum

The British Musuem currently has an excellent exhibition on Ice Age Art.  Billed as "40,000 years in the making", it is well worth a visit.

Books on Prescription

One of the new trends in libraries at the moment is "books on prescription".  In fact this has been around quite a while, including in Brent.  The concept was recently explained in the Guardian.  It is just one of the many ways in which modern libraries are no longer warehouses full of books.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

One Stop Shop in Harlesden Job Centre Plus

As part of the Willesden Green Library redevelopment, Brent's one stop shop services are moving to Harlesden Job Centre.  This should make it easier for Kensal Green residents to access them, although they will only be based there during the Willesden rebuild.

Boris Johnson's Dreadful Air Quality Record

Boris Johnson's awful record on air quality is confirmed once again.  This is just the kind of issue, requiring technical detail, persistence and long periods without exciting photo opportunities that you would expect the Conservative Mayor to fail in.  Indeed, I suspect more recent activity by Boris is not to do with the thousands of Londoners who avoidable die because of poor air quality each year, but more to do with political embarrassment from EU fines.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Willesden Library Centre Update

It is now confirmed that the planning application to redevelop Willesden Green Library will not be heard tonight, but rather on 21 February.  There was apparently a technical detail around notice periods which has caused the glitch.

Avoiding Blame

Red Brick has a useful summary of the various tactics that Tory ministers use to avoid the blame for all the damage they are causing.  However, they don't mention the Sarah Teather tactic of supporting all the nastiness when you have a ministerial job, and then condemning the same policies as immoral once you have been sacked.

Councillor Blogs

Someone has set up a site collating councillor blogs across the country.  It points out that these tend to be a good source of local news stories, but I am struck that most of the blogs featured tend to be by Labour councillors. I wonder why that is?

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Alternate Weekly Collections

Yesterday's post attracted a comment about alternate weekly collections (AWC) which I thought worth responding to.  It is actually about political leadership in general, but AWC is the example cited.

Firstly, the Labour manifesto did have a commitment to massively increase recycling, and detailed working subsequently suggested that AWC was the best way to achieve this.  Far from "steamrollering" this we went through an extensive discussion.  The proposals were published in August 2010, and the policy finally passed in December 2010.  As well as written comments, we ran a series of public meetings.  I presented at each of these.  I believe I am the first lead member to have done this in Brent. My opinion that AWC is popular is based on these meetings but also the numerous conversations and feedback I have had subsequently.  It is also worth noting that AWC is increasingly used across the UK despite Eric Pickles trying to attack it.

Generally, people support more recycling, and are not hostile to the three bin system.  The main concerns during the presentations was how to fit the bins in to sometimes small front gardens , and how to educate people in making the system work.

We are still working on getting people to know what to put in which bin, which may not be surprising in a Borough where 22% of households do not have an English speaker and the turnover is so high.  However, the blue top bins, where you just stick lots of materials in together, are less demanding of householders than the old green box system, where you were supposed to sort each material separately.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Political Leadership in Brent

There is a lot of rhetoric around political leadership, so I thought I would post on what I think it means in my context.  Many of the attacks on Brent Council seem misguided to me not only in the sense that the real source of the decisions is the attack on the whole concept of local government, but also in their view of political choice generally.

I think political choices are essentially value judgements between different priorities.  In principle, officers and civil servants can use their expertise to answer technocratic questions like How much would this cost? Is this legal? How many extra people would service if we did X?.  What they cannot do is say that, for instance spending money on domestic violence services is more or less important than spending money on (say) library services.  At least they cannot know better than anyone else, and that is why in democratic institutions, elected people make those decisions.

These questions of priorities become much more acute at a time of shrinking budgets. The most famous exponent of this view was Nye Bevan who famously declared that "The language of priorities is the religion of Socialism."  I get the sense that many people simply are not willing to face up to the priority choices that Councils like Brent have to make.  They retreat into denialism of the Far Left type ("Just spend the money.  Set an illegal budget") to the Eric Pickles type ("There is so much waste in local government that you can cut the budgets simply by cutting waste without hurting services").  Some people manage to combine both views at once.

I think that real political leadership consists of facing the problems squarely, and making changes to preserve or enhance the key priorities, even if that means that you offend various special interest groups or politically motivated individuals.  Failure  to face up to these problems simply leads to salami slicing where everything is treated the same and effectively no political choice is made because the politicians are not prepared to make it.

A few examples from Environment and Neighbourhood Services might illustrate the point:

1) When we were first elected, I told officers that one of our first priorities would be to improve recycling.  At the time, I thought this would be much more controversial than it turned out to be.  I still see disbelief from my Labour colleagues in London when  tell them we have introduced alternative weekly collections and it is quite popular.  Plenty of Councils are scared of doing the same, and they will have to divert ever increasing resources into paying for landfill as a result.

2)  Much more controversially, we  decided to concentrate our library service on a smaller number of buildings and invest in Library services rather than just "hollow out" the service.  I have covered that area before in many posts. We are now starting to see the benefits.  Opponents of this policy should recognise that without the difficult choices made, the bits that everyone should welcome, like improvements to the home delivery service, would never have happened.

3) A third area we have chosen to positively develop is our arts strategy.  Famously other Councils, like Somerset and Newcastle, are cutting Arts altogether.  I am a strong believer in the potential for our Arts strategy to contribute both economically and socially, but that means not promoting something else.

4) Another political choice that Brent is developing more is to seek to make all our services contribute to the economic well being of residents.  Again this is not an automatic choice.  I can easily envisage a Tory who believes in the Nightwatchman state saying that we should not attempt it.

5)  Our very strong environmentalist commitment is another area where we have chosen to take a particular route.   To try to cut carbon emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change is again a political choice.  There are plenty of Councils not pursuing climate change with anything like the fervour of Brent.

6) The Civic Centre is another case of strong political leadership.  When we were elected in 2010, there were siren voices to say the project should be cancelled.  We looked at the facts, and decided to go ahead.  The voices against have not largely gone silent.

What all these policies have in common is that they are based on a firm set of priorities, a careful assessment of the evidence, and some courage in answering groups and individuals who opposed them.  Once the policies are shown to be successful, the opponents tend to go quiet.  For instance I doubt whether either the Tories or the Liberal Democrats now to have opposed our recycling changes.  What else is political leadership supposed to mean?

I really don't understand anyone who stands for office without being willing to make these kind of choices.


This is already a very long post, so I have responded to the comment below here.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Harlesden Town Centre Update

On Friday, I attended a lengthy meeting on Harlesden Town Centre.  The start of construction has been pushed back to May to accomodate some changes in the detailed designs that have emerged from the consultations.  It is not yet finalised, but there are likely to be more disability parking spaces than originally envisaged as changes to exact locations of certain items.  Altogether, I think it is a good compromise between the various competing demands.


In response to comment: spelling error corrected.  I was typing from a computer that had a sadly inadequate keyboard.

The meeting I went to on Friday was not a formally constituted council meeting.  Councillors often attend informal meetings with officers or residents that are not publicly notified.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Car Use in Brent

Another interesting observation from the census breakdown I mentioned yesterday is around car use.  43% of people in Brent live in households without a car, and this proportion is going up.  It would be interesting to know what the reasons are for this.  Is it linked to poverty, or is public policy finally succeeding in a "modal shift" away from car use as the default mode of transport?

Schemes like the Harlesden Town Centre scheme, and indeed Brent's entire transport and planning policies, are all geared to persuading people to choose any method of travel other than car use.  Are these policies finally working?

Friday, 8 February 2013

Population Explosion in Brent

I was recently sent a ward breakdown of the census figures for Brent.  I already knew that our population had gone up by 18% between 2001 and 2011, but it turns out that the biggest increases are in Harlesden and Kensal Green wards.  Both have seen a rise of about 40%.  That has huge implications for all kinds of Council services.  The funding levels we had in 2010 were designed around the 2001 population.  Now the dramatically reduced funding is supposed to pay for a much larger population and all its changing needs.  A tall order.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

A Peculiar Evening

I went along to the Selma James evening at Kilburn Library this evening which turned out to be a huge rant against all sorts of things, some of which I oppose, and some of which I do not, but which all seem to have little connection to each other.

National Libraries Day in Brent and other things

I have updated about libraries recently, but there are some things ongoing.  We are having a number of contributions to National Libraries Day on Saturday.  We also have a library card design competition announced.  Interest in the next Brent Dance Month is being drummed up.  Tonight Selma James is giving a talk at Kilburn Library to promote a recent book.  As well as being a writer and campaigner in her own right, she is the widow of CLR James, of Black Jacobins and Beyond a Boundary fame.

Other Brent Library events are here.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Sarah Teather Accused of Hypocrisy

Not for the first time, Sarah Teather has been accused of dishonesty, this time over gay marriage.  Previously she has managed all kinds of dishonesty, and escaped at the ballot box, but it seems to me that her luck is finally running out.

Meanwhile Space in Wembley

The Guardian has a report on the innovative use of meanwhile space, and it is nowhere else but in Brent.  More specifically in Wembley.  This gives an idea of some of the inventiveness that Councils can still come up with.  I wonder whether central government departments can be so flexible.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Six Book Challenge

A reminder of the adult six book challenge launching later today.  Last year this was launched by Adele Parks; now it is launched by Charlie Oatway.  Harlesden Library makes sense as a venue since Brent attracts more participants than any other authority.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Local Government and the Forthcoming Disaster

The forthcoming disaster of local government finance is predicted again.  I wonder what will have to occur before Eric Pickles pays attention? Probably the whole scale collapse of a major Tory authority would be my guess. In which case we have two or three years to wait.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Returning to The Island in Kensal Rise

The other night I dined at The Island on College Road.  I haven't been there for a while.  I still think every time I go in how infinitely better it is compared to the old Buccaneer.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Judicial Reviews Again

I see that a number of Councils are being threatened with judicial review over changes to Council Tax support.  The government has foisted this problem on to Councils in defiance of the supposed logic of its benefits cuts, to make things simpler and more equitable, simply in order to put blame on local government.  The only silver lining I can see is that the cases will be heard quickly because of their budgetary nature.  However, if any of the Councils lose, the results are likely to be chaos in the simple practicalities of organising their Council tax billing.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Brent Libraries Update

As the government and various bodies have announced a universal libraries offer, I thought it would be timely to give a short update on how Brent's libraries have been developing.  Actually, many of the things in the offer, like financial advice or books on prescription, are already available in Brent. As I have explained before, we have been developing the service since the end of the court case, and there are now some impressive headline achievements:

The Summer Reading Challenge has had its greatest ever number of children in Brent this year.

Brent Libraries have seen more than one million visitors in the year to date, and more than 770,000 book issues.

Outreach issues have gone up by more than 400%, to more than 50,000.

We have had more than 15,000 new borrowers.

Since the end of the court case we have had a refurbishment at Ealing Road library and a bigger one at Kilburn Library.  In June, we will open the new Wembley library at the Civic Centre.

We have added 56,000 items to the bookstock and introduced smarter stock management.  If laid end to end those 56,000 items would stretch from Wembley Stadium to Piccadily Circus.

More than 1,500 children attended our revamped homework clubs in the Summer and Autumn terms.

Our home delivery service has treble the number of book issues.

We have greatly extended our online services.

Altogether, I think that is quite a lot of progress, although there is much more to do.  Had we gone down the salami slicing route that so many other authorities have chosen, I don't believe we would have a list anywhere near as impressive.  Indeed, it would have been a continuation of managed decline, whereas we are taking what was a declining service and gradually turning it round.