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Saturday, 30 November 2013

Eternal Austerity and the Thinking Behind it

Yet another reminder of the sheer scale of cuts to local government here.  I think that there are a number of points about this that are still not fully understood.

The cuts and virtual dismantling of large parts of local government are not a consequence of government policy.  They are government policy.  David Cameron's eternal austerity programme is designed to roll back the state more dramatically than Thatcher did, and that means cutting back local government to such an extent it will not be able to recover.

The annihilation of universal services is designed to persuade a greater and greater proportion of the population that they do not benefit from state spending, and therefore why should they pay for it?  Strictly speaking of course, everyone benefits from public spending to some extent, but it is a key axiom of certain right wing ideologues that this is not so.

A key tactic in this onslaught is to attack the public sector as greedy and wasteful.  This is partly to distract from the waste and greed of the bankers who pay for the Conservative Party, but also helps people to attack public sector organisations as a means of divide and rule.

What remains of the functions of the state will increasingly be run by quangos and shadowy private contractors.  The secrecy of such operations may well lead to increasing corruption which discredits public spending still further.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Some of the Problems of Recycling in Brent

I have recently been sent the league table of London Boroughs recycling record.  Brent comes out quite well at joint seventh with Hillingdon at 43%.  However, these kind of tables seldom look at the various factors that make the job harder in some areas compared to others.  Once you take that into account, I think Brent's performance starts to look very impressive.  Some of the areas where Brent struggles are:

1) Brent have a high proportion of flats (53%).  That is much higher than any of the seven Boroughs above us, and 13th highest in terms of Boroughs as a whole.

2) Brent has the second highest proportion of households with language problems (after Newham).  That has an obvious impact.

Despite this, our record has improved markedly from the less than 30% recycling rate we inherited in 2010.


The figures given are calculated using a standard methodology which excludes contaminated waste.  As far as I know, the same methodology is used by all UK authorities.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Wembley Library and the Virtues of Colocation

The benefits of Colocation are often cited in the libraries debate.  I suggested this would be true of the new Wembley Library some time ago.  The Civic Centre does after all colocate the new library with Brent's registry office, benefits advice, a major venue for all sorts of different groups to hire out, planning, other Council services and fairly soon some retail outlets as well.  This no doubt helps underpin the spectacular growth in numbers at Wembley Library.

Although Wembley Library has long had the standard Brent offer of seven day opening, it has now opened the doors from 8am, not just the usual opening time of 10am.  This is made possible by the need for the rest of the Civic Centre to be staffed at that time, and the availability of self service machines.  Although the 8am to 10am slot is not fully operational since there are no staff, you can borrow or return a book, use the desks and read periodicals or other materials during that period, so it is a genuine expansion at effectively no cost.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Shocking Figures for Brent Council Budget

I have recently received some information for a query I raised at a Scrutiny meeting in July.  Leaving aside the extraordinary tardiness of the response, the figures themselves are shocking.  Brent Council expects to spend £17.93 million this year on agency staff and consultants.  Whilst it is claimed to be a 10% drop on the previous year, it strikes me as appallingly high and suggestive of a serious managerial problem in the organisation.

An organisation that has shed so many permanent staff should not need to drag in temporary labour to top up the establishment. Either mistakes have been made in the anticipated workload, or temporary labour are being hired without sufficient checks.  Either way it is unacceptable.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Future of Local Government

Today I got one of those reports one gets, this one from Deloitte.  It is a survey of local government people saying they want to focus on prevention and so on.  All very good in theory.  In practice I suspect local government will be forced more and more down the fire fighting route, until eventually authorities start going bankrupt, and central government says far too late: " What have we done?"

Although I am something of a heretic on this subject, I suspect the best answer will be authority mergers.

Standing Up for Libraries

I have been perusing the notes by Public Libraries News about the Stand Up for Libraries Conference at the weekend.  The suggestions on best practice and so on seem to be very similar to what Brent Council is actually doing, and indeed the approach I advocated on Public Libraries News quite a while ago.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Universal Credit and Ministerial Stupidity

The FT carries an interview with Francis Maude in which he more or admits that ministers don't understand their departments.  He particularly cites the government's failings on Universal Credit and claims that civil servants should "speak truth to power".  He then illustrates why they probably won't by trying to blame them for the failures on the universal credit policy.

The inadequacy of the political leadership in this government is breathtaking.

Computer Use in Libraries

I argued before that computer provision is part of the statutory duty for public library provision.  If so, that implies that local authorities need to adopt some sort of standard to show what sort of provision that they are making.  Such a standard would be complicated by the wireless revolution.

The alternative view, apparently held by the Secretary of State, is that computer provision is not part of the statutory requirement.  In other words, a local authority that wanted to reduce its library service to the bare statutory minimum, as Herefordshire appears to, could save money by stripping out all the IT from its libraries.  This is not an abstract idea.  Many councils are talking about being forced down the road of providing only those services they are legally obliged to.

Were the bare minimum model to be followed, it would have serious effects on the roll out of universal credit, and no doubt other services since a certain proportion of the population only have Internet access through public libraries.  Whereas the long term outlook is for this proportion to diminish, that is the situation at the moment.

The DCMS stance on libraries can therefore be seen as fundamentally undermining the government's welfare "reform" programme.  I suspect that this is not the only case where the government simply does not understand what it is doing.

Sunday, 24 November 2013


The Guardian recently published a book review about the dead of the First World War in a way that was new to me.  Essentially, the First World War was one of the first occasions when private bereavement was scaled up to a national scale.  The article covers this in terms of government decisions to treat all the dead equally.  At the time, that must have been radical.  It would very much have been the era of officers and "other ranks".

It seemed to me to cast a reflection on modern problems.  In our cemetery service, but also many others, Brent Council has to find ways to combine effective mass provision with personalised care.  The graves service is simply one of these, although perhaps more sensitive than most.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Falling Standards in Local Government

The BBC covers ongoing crises in Kent around the standard of local democracy.  I posted on one small part of Transparency International's recent report on the subject.

Thanet has had one of its former Leaders convicted of using his position to illegally profit in a property deal.  The new problems seem to be more about the general culture of the authority with accusations of threats, and indeed councillors simply not taking their responsibilities serious enough. I suspect that these are more common problems in UK local democracy, with problems around gesture politics, misdirected energies, lack of attention to the value of taxpayers' money and poor quality decision making being far more common than outright corruption.  However, I suspect that such issues have the potential to do far more damage to an authority than outright corruption by a particular individual.

However, all of these areas are seeing the safeguards against abuse steadily dismantled, as Transparency International detailed in their recent report.

Friday, 22 November 2013

David Cameron Rejects Environmentalism

David Cameron is reported to be rejecting environmentalism.  I am surprised people thought he genuinely embraced it to begin with.  Despite his best efforts to put his past down the memory hole, I always thought David Cameron was summed up in his photo op of cycling to the Commons with a chauffeur behind bringing his work clothes.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Outsourcing Services

The Guardian has a cautionary tale from Warrington.  The authority there outsourced speech therapy to the NHS, which subsequently decided to axe this statutory service without telling Warrington Council.  It is a good illustration of one of the potential problems in partnership working.  There is always a danger of your partner, whether it is a private provider or another public authority like the NHS, letting you down.  The only way to deal with that, of course, is to ensure you are completely clear on the agreement and that you rigorously keep track that whatever you want is actually being done.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Boris Johnson Foundering on Cycle Safety

Boris Johnson's rather useless flapping about after the death of several cyclists has culminated in a typically headline grabbing intervention about headphones.  What irritates me about Johnson's whole approach is that it is so superficial.  As with his campaign against bendy buses, it seems to be based on personal anecdote and wishful thinking rather than sustained effort over time. 

Meanwhile, more serious people than the London Mayor are making genuine progress on road safety for cyclists.  Both the Lohac contract and the new public realm contract that Brent has just signed, for instance, have provision for the heavy vehicles employed to have various cyclist friendly measures.  These are largely directed at making cyclists as visible as possible to drivers.  The ideas involved have been known to transport professionals for years, whilst Boris Johnson was simply not paying attention.

It would also be nice if the London Mayor could pay attention to road safety more generally.  Pedestrian safety in London is often woeful, with some real blackspots easy to find.  There is ample evidence that twenty mile zones would make a real difference to the number of killed and seriously injured. 

It would be useful if the London Mayor would pay attention to those issues.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Illegal Money Lending Team

Last night's Full Council meeting was longer on noise than on achievement, so I thought I would mention the Illegal Money Lending Team (ILMT) instead.  This is coming up for discussion at the next Trading Standards Board.  It is a specialist team based in Birmingham and funded through a specific government grant (when central government wants something the money mysteriously becomes available despite austerity).

It concentrates on what can often be the very complex business of prosecuting unlicensed money lenders.  I have occasionally come across such cases, and it is horrible to see how they can fleece people.  They are in fact much worse than Wonga and other payday lenders, although I would not defend payday loans either.  The Birmingham team is being empowered to pursue cases in Brent that meet their specialist skills, and I wish them every success.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Street Gritting over the next Week

London is expected to avoid the worst of the cold snap expected this week, but Brent has 2,160 tons of salt and 326 grit bins ready just in case.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

A and E at Central Middlesex

There has been justified concern over A&E at Central Middlesex, but I have found it frustrating that the debate seems to have been carried on in isolation.  That is not very useful if we actually want to help get people timely medical treatment rather than just a load of publicity.  The Bruce Keogh proposals offer a chance to move to a more rounded debate.

Anecdotally, and with some statistical evidence, much of the potential overload seems to come from the difficulties in other parts of the NHS.  People find it very hard to get a GP appointment, and the number of walk in centres is reducing.  Therefore, increasingly people treat AE as a first resort.  There may also be something in cultural change and GPs not working convenient opening hours.

There is also the worrying issue of cuts to the ambulance service at least in London.  As I understand it stabilizing someone quickly is usually more important to their health than the time it takes to get to a hospital once they are in the ambulance.

Finally, there is the argument about the actual quality of the A&E once the patient actually gets there. Everyone I know with clinical expertise seems to think that the range of specialisms available is hugely important, and that a certain throughput of patients is crucial to that.

Sadly, none of these points have really featured in the public debate.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Implications of the Ouseley Judgement

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that the Brent Libraries judgement seemed to say that electronically distributed materials formed part of the statutory comprehensive and efficient library service.  This was picked up by Public Libraries News, but the implications aren't really clear.

I should point out that my interpretation does not seem to be widely shared, but, assuming I am right that implies:

A) Charging for ebook lending, as say Nottinghamshire does, may be illegal.
B) Charging for PC access, as I believe some libraries do, may also be illegal.
C) The long standing practice of many libraries in charging for DVDs may also be illegal if these fit in the section 7 definition.
D) The number and quality of IT points is a relevant consideration in determining whether or not a library authority is meeting its statutory duty.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Corruption in Local Government

Transparency International has a report out about corruption in local government, which has plenty of meat in it, and possibly deserves several posts. 

One narrow point it makes is the government's suggested removal of the statutory protection for Chief Executives, Finance Directors and Monitoring Officers.  This affords an extra level of protection from being sacked on the grounds that all three are senior posts that deal with politically sensitive matters.  Allowing their holders to be removed without clear justification would open the doors to an unscrupulous political leadership clearing the way for all kinds of dirty work.

It quotes an example of a Chief Executive in Lincolnshire calling in the Police to investigate the Council Leader.  The Leader was subsequently convicted.  The Chief Executive emphasizes how important it was that he had statutory employment protection against being dismissed.  Yet this is precisely what the current government is proposing.

Of course, any organization where lots of people are being made redundant may find staff reluctant to stand up for ethical standards, as widespread redundancies may create a climate of fear, so it is important to look beyond the formal protections to the wider ethos of the organization. 

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Library Use Debate

Interesting blog here about library use by an Australian library user.  Her points apply just as well to the UK.  The post and subsequent comments give a flavour of how diverse library use can be.  It is also the kind of debate that we should have more of in the UK, rather than a succession of anecdotes about someone's childhood, or an evidence free series of assertions about the needs of people who haven't been asked.

She is right that libraries are only just catching up with the impact of the Internet, let alone the impact of wireless technologies.

I think she is also right that library services, including Brent still haven't really caught up with some fairly obvious marketing techniques.  As she says, why don't we do author recommendations to people?  The trend to a more informal reading environment of soft furnishings and a coffee, rather than desk bound and formalised reading is important too.

That said, I think Brent libraries have gone a long way towards meeting these demands in the past three years.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

David Cameron's Mask Slips

David Cameron has shifted his justification of austerity away from necessity and towards ideological desire.  When elected in 2010, he pretended the budget cuts had been forced by the economic crisis, rather than being a means of prolonging it.  Now he is plainer that he wants the old Thatcherite ideal of a smaller state.  I suspect that this also the real desire of Nick Clegg and the "Orange Book" Liberals.

I think the best way to respond to this is to say: what we need is an effective state, which demonstrates value for money in doing what we want it to do.  One example of this would be in waste collection where the amount of money spent is reduced dramatically by switching from landfill towards more recycling, or other higher rungs in the waste hierarchy.

Sadly, some of the people I speak to have what might be seen as an ultra conservative approach of just resisting any form of change.  Particularly people on the Looney Left seem to think that spending more and more public sector money should be seen as a good in itself, which seems to me just as silly as the Thatcherite idea that public spending is bad in itself.  I also think that adopting such a line plays into Cameron's hands because it sounds like a defence of waste rather than a defence of value.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Food Waste Bans

A new report emphasises the importance of dealing with food waste, which is certainly true.  Weekly food waste collections are crucial to this.  The mention of banning food waste in landfill strikes me as misguided, however.  Banning a material means that relying on the people getting rid of it, in this case the public playing ball by not putting it in the bin in the first place.  If they do, you either have to refuse to collect it at source, or refuse to allow it to be deposited in landfill.  In which case, what do you do with it?

Monday, 11 November 2013

Stop More Betting Shops

The Tories and the Lib Dems have reportedly assured betting shop companies that local authority powers to stop their spread will be be limited.  This is the absolute opposite of what I get whenever I talk to anyone on this issue. People at large very much want betting shops and other anti social shops like fast food shops to be curbed.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Basements and Planning

Dan Filson asks about basement applications here.  My colleague Cllr James Denselow has been pursuing the basement issue for a long time.  It seems to particularly affect Queens Park.  Brent's most recent statement on basement policy is right at the back of the May Planning agenda here.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Planning Site Visits

Just back from a series of Planning site visits on this very wet morning.  It is interesting the number of  basement applications that have started coming up.


A response on the question on basement developments is here.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Harlesden Incinerator Application Delayed Again

The Incinerator application for a site just south of Harlesden has been delayed again.  The planning objections to this development are sound.  In particular, it is not one of the areas earmarked for waste purposes under the West London Waste Plan.  I would prefer it if rather than deferring it all the time, the application were simply rejected.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Council Tax Summons in Brent

Along with many other Brent Councillors, I recently got an email about the effect of the government's foisting of Council Tax relief on to local authorities.

There seem to me to be two essential questions.  Firstly, did central government give Brent a reasonable choice in adopting a local scheme or not? Secondly, did Brent follow a considered process in trying to minimise the problems caused?

As I understand it Brent is one of the worst affected authorities in London.  Simply adopting the national scheme, on the much lower funding provided by central government, would result in a £5.5 million shortfall.  That could only be made up by spending cuts, and £5.5 million is a lot of money.  For example, it is more than the entire libraries budget.  No one in the Council has much appetite for more cuts than we already have.

Remember central government is expected to give us another £65 million of cuts over the next three years. It is widely predicted that many local authorities will simply collapse.

The second question is did the Council try to deal with this sensibly, and I think we did.  As an Executive member, I was asked to join an informal working group of members and officers.  It included Cllr Mo Butt, when he was still Lead Member for Finance.  He stayed on when his successor as Lead Member for Finance Cllr Ruth Moher joined.  It also included Cllr Zaffar Van Kalwala as a Scrutiny Chair with a particular interest in Council Tax issues.  Therefore we can say the problem got a lot of political attention as well as input from senior officers such as the then Finance Director.  I think that group produced useful results.

Far from the suggestions in press reports, a court summons is very much a last resort.  As well as a general publicity programme in the Brent Magazine and specific communities, the Council has been specifically contacting individuals.  This was both by phone and on the doorstep.  Anyone in difficulty should contact the Council as soon as possible, and agree a payment plan.

It is not the intention of the Council to make anyone's life difficult, but the Council itself is being put in an impossible position.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Welcome to the Library Press

I thought I should just briefly welcome the Library Press.  Brent is one of the partners in this effort to help people who want to self publish.  This is exactly the kind of innovation that libraries need if they are to continue to be valued as services.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Immigration Checks for Housing

The way this government blithely sails into entirely predictable disasters has been demonstrated by Iain Duncan Smith and the growing Universal Credit debacle.  Red Brick is giving warning of another crisis coming down the road, the imposition of immigration checks by private landlords. 

The government plans to make all landlords check their tenants' immigration status.  They estimate this would take ten minutes which is a hell of a lot quicker than the Home Office are able to manage.  They also seem to take no account of missing documentation, poor language or "officialdom" skills or simple human impatience.  As Red Brick suggests, many landlords are likely to ignore certain tenants simply to avoid the risks and effort involved. 

We recently had a reminder that racist practices are still commonplace in private lettings, with an example highlighted in Willesden.  Is this bill likely to help that?

Monday, 4 November 2013

Bob Keslake and Politicisation

The Permanent Secretary of the Department of Communities and Local Government has been criticized for making some politicised comments on a recent Public Accounts Committee report.  It follows suggestions over the past year that he has lost the confidence of ministers.  Eric Pickles is usually very sensitive to any suggestion of local authority resources being used for party political purposes.  Should he not be concerned by political interventions by his own head of department?

Sunday, 3 November 2013

What is the Statutory Library Duty

As an aside this Sunday morning, something no one seemed to pick up on during the libraries controversy was that the Bailey case seemed to clarify the nature of the "comprehensive and efficient" duty to provide library services.  This is widely assumed to refer to printed materials and nothing else.

However, if you read paragraph 116 of the High Court judgement, you find the judge saying:

"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."

This view, in a judgement that was subsequently considered by the Court of Appeal and found sound seems very important to me.  "Section 7" is the part of the 1964 Act that refers to the "comprehensive and efficient" duty.

This seems to me to be rather different to the Secretary of State's view of the s7 duty expressed in her letter to Brent.  In that, she states that the provision of public access PCs is not part of the s7 duty. 

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Ealing Waste Incinerator

Ealing Planning Committee will be considering the proposal for a waste Incinerator in Harlesden on Wednesday.  They have written a standard letter to myself and other objectors saying "where your response was not in total support..."  I would be surprised if they have had any letters giving any support.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Former Cllr Len Snow

I am sad to report that former Brent Councillor and Mayor Len Snow has died.  My thoughts go to his family, and I will post at greater length at a later date.

Changes to Kilburn High Road

Brent's Highways Committee is one of those Council backwaters that occasionally has interesting schemes in front of it.  One such was the proposed safety scheme at the northern end of Kilburn High Road.  This is still at a fairly early design stage, and has to be worked out in conjunction with Camden. 

Naturally, most of the attention is focused on improving road safety, which is extremely poor even for such a busy road.  However improving the walkability and the look of the street could also help build it up as a shopping centre.  It actually is seen as one of Brent's key shopping centres, but people have been complaining about its decline for as long as I can remember.  Whereas a single scheme cannot work miracles, there is potential for incremental improvement.

Universal Credit Staggers On

It seems that the government is finally facing up to the universal credit debacle behind the scenes.  I still find it surprising that this incompetent policy has not attracted more criticism, not least for Iain Duncan Smith's dishonest presentation.  There really is something wrong in our political culture when  foul ups that cost hundreds of millions have no consequences for the culprits, whilst personal shortcomings or even verbal gaffes lead to resignations.