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Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Ed Miliband's Success as Labour Leader

Today is traditionally seen as a time to look back on things, and what strikes me most about the past year is the realignment of politics.

The Tories appear to have got themselves in an election losing strategy of eternal austerity.  In doing so they have abandoned all the attempts at niceness, detoxification and so on that David Cameron originally based his leadership on.  Together with what looks like an increasingly dangerous threat from Nigel Farage, if I were a Tory I would be seriously worried by the next General Election.

Incidentally, although it tends to be the Political Right that bandies the term "class war", there is a strong argument that it is the aristocracy that has the strongest sense of class.  If one reads Lawrence Stone's classic The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641, this is one of his major points.  I recall being particularly struck by a short vignette of a ship wreck in the 1620s in that book where one of the gentleman held off the common crew from the only lifeboat with a drawn sword whilst allowing only his fellow aristocrats aboard.  Such an image might be considered emblematic of Mr Cameron's own approach.

Ed Miliband, in contrast, has had a remarkable year, especially in the second half.  He has managed to position Labour credibly on the economy, and crucially as on the side of ordinary people in terms of cost of living.  Even more remarkably, he managed to make the political weather in the Syria debate.  I cannot recall a parallel of the Leader of the Opposition effectively determining a major foreign policy decision in the way that Labour were able to stop military action in Syria.

More on Hotel Libraries

Some while ago I wrote a brief post on hotel libraries.  It would seem this a growing trend, at least according to the New York Times.

Monday, 30 December 2013

The Looming Debt Crisis

The precariousness of the current recovery is emphasised by the likely effect of a rise in mortgage rates.  I suspect that it could be actually worse than implied.  If large numbers of people found that they could not service their debts at the same time, that would multiply the damage.  A wave of repossessions might cast lots of properties on the market at the same time, driving prices in a sudden lurch downwards, pushing vastly greater numbers of people into negative equity, and scaring people currently disparate to enter the market.  The Help to Buy scheme would only make such a scenario worse, and there is no sign of the government even trying to rebalance housing in this country, which has now become a fundamental part of the malfunction of our economy.

George Osborne seems to me not to have an economic strategy; merely a political strategy for the next election.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Nick Cohen on Food Banks

I can't better Nick Cohen's condemnation of the Tory and Liberal Democrat position on food banks.  Iain Duncan Smith is merely the worst example of a government where lying and hypocrisy are ordinary tools of business, and the poorest are deliberately and cynically targeted.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Economical Misconceptions

Once again Martin Francis appears to be misrepresenting Brent Labour Party, this time on economic policy.  You can see Martin's views here.  Lets not worry about whether the misrepresentation is deliberate or accidental, and just work through them.

Incidentally lets also quickly welcome Martin's still quite faint praise for Wembley Library as a library "for local people". 

First off, Martin is concentrating still on Brent Council activities, which are only part of the economic policy of a party of national government like the Labour Party.  Indeed local authorities play quite a small part.  I actually quite like a lot of the stuff coming from the Heseltine Review about regional development, although more recognition that London is the UK's biggest region would be nice.

Anyway, lets concentrate on what Brent Council can do for the purposes of this post.

Are there any Magic Sectors?
For whatever reason, economic discussions often seem to praise one area of economic activity and denigrate others.  Martin claims Brent Green Party is quite anti-retail.  If so, I think that is as silly as being anti-construction or anti manufacturing as Thatcher was in the 1980s.  There is no magic part of the economy.  There is just a need for an overall balance.

The UK as a whole has a problem that our tradable sector is too small for our imports, and we need to correct that but things like tourism and indeed retail can contribute to our "exports" to some extent albeit they are no adequate substitution for high end manufacturing.

Living Standards
The current government seems wedded to a kind of asset stripping model where wages and other costs are ruthlessly pushed down.  This, aside being pretty miserable for people on low wages, doesn't seem to work.  Someone else will always be able to undercut us.  Whereas cost cutting works for an individual company, it doesn't work for the economy as a whole as all national economies rely primarily on the goods and services we sell to each other.  Cutting the income of one part of the economy cuts the income of others and sets us off on a downward spiral.

Labour's approach is more about modifying the benefits system so that it ceases to subsidise employers who refuse to give their employers a living wage.  This can be done partly through restructuring benefits, but also through promoting the Living Wage, and I would like to see a rise in the Minimum Wage which has been drastically eroded by inflation.  The main way the Council can influence this is through paying its own employees (They all get the London Living Wage and above), building a London Living Wage requirement into its contracts (as happened with the Public Realm contract recently) and encouraging private employers to pay the London Living Wage (as Islington claims some success in).

A second area Councils can influence is education and training.  Brent has achieved a significant turnaround from exam results below the London and National average twenty years ago, to being above the London and National averages now.  We are now routinely examining contracts for opportunities to create apprenticeships, as well as in Brent's directly employed workforce. 

There are also some third sector organisations like LEAP that do interesting work in brokering and supporting people into jobs.  A key part of this kind of work is getting people to travel to opportunities.  Brent has good transport links to the rest of London, but many people from our poorest areas seem reluctant to use them.  We need to work out why that is.  Anecdotally, I have been told of recruitment difficulties by some employers, which seem to be more linked to attitudes than to harder barriers,.  Again, that needs more work.

Given Brent's particular demographics, I think there is scope for the Council helping people further, especially with language skills.  Anecdotally, I have heard that BACES are not always user friendly to complete novices in English and that may need to be addressed.  I think our libraries service are active in this way, as well as in encouraging English literacy for English speakers

Encouraging Small Businesses
Nationally, Labour has been prominent in promoting small businesses, which are a major engine of jobs growth, through events like Small Business Saturday.  The Council has also been active in trying to help people start their own businesses, as in the Kensal Green Kitchens Scheme.  I think it is fair to say that this is an area where Labour needs to develop its policies more in line with the outlines in Ed Miliband's Conference Speech.

The Council could do a lot to encourage businesses in areas like Ealing Road or Harlesden Town Centre through improving the Public Realm, as I have often advocated.  There is good research that
improving the quality of the public realm leads to increased turnover by local businesses.  Another key role for the Council would come in planning or supporting a unique selling point for different areas say food in Harlesden, an Asian offer in Ealing Road, the Arts in Kilburn High Road, the new Willesden Centre in Willesden and so on.  It would obviously be useful if national government would expand local authority powers on licensing and son on, as Ed Miliband recently promised on a Kilburn visit.

The Environmental Agenda
Finally, in what has become a rather longer post than I intended, our pressing environmental needs create economic opportunities.  These could come in all kinds of forms: retrofitting old homes, selling environmental advice as the Carbon Trust does (when we held an environmental event for businesses at the old Town Hall the Carbon Trust representative explained that the Carbon Trust had originally been set up to cut business costs, not for environmental purposes at all), creating markets through spreading awareness of environmental needs.

Martin makes a bit of a nod to this sort of thing in his "Green Enterprise Zone" idea, but it is is intriguing how many misconceptions lie behind that.  Firstly, the long term plans for the Wembley area (essentially shaped by the Labour Party) effectively give less emphasis on Wembley as a retail area than in the past.  That is arguably just a recognition of reality, but Martin seems to think we are doing the opposite.  Secondly, Martin seems to have forgotten about Park Royal, which is Europe's biggest Industrial estate with lots of space for all kinds of businesses, including green businesses, and companies like McVities that have really led environmental improvements in their areas.  Developing businesses there, along with ll the difficulties around transport and so on, would still be far easier than trying to overturn almost twenty years of Planning work around Wembley.

Hopefully all this gives some idea of the amount of work already underway through the Council and the Labour Party to develop Brent's economy.  However, boosting the economy in Brent is really something that can only really be done effectively if central government pursues an effective growth policy rather than the current actively damaging one.

Friday, 27 December 2013

Massacre of the Holy Innocents

Today is the Feast of the Massacre of the Holy Innocents, so I thought I would put up a picture.  It is Pieter Brueghal's image of that subject.  Although it is a biblical subject, it is often taken to be a commentary on contemporary atrocities in the Low Countries by the Hapsburg regime.

I am often surprised that people seem to think that comments by analogy are somehow a modern invention. 

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Christmas Leftovers

The Guardian has some tips on Christmas leftovers which sounds as if it has been prompted by the Love Food, Hate Waste Campaign.  There is also a short infographic on the potential advantages of a smarter approach to food waste.

A World on Fire

Over Christmas, I have been reading Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire, which is an account of the American Civil War seen through the perspective of Anglo-American relations.  Truly a remarkable achievement, that took her eleven years to write.  If you don't want to buy it, you can borrow it from Brent Libraries

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Thomas Hardy and the Oxen

I am not sure why, but I have always been moved by this poem by Thomas Hardy, which is at l;east topical this evening:

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel,

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so’

Looking Both Ways on Planning Appeals

One of the curiosities of planning appeals at the moment is that the Planning Inspectors are being more sympathetic to appeals aimed to develop outbuildings at the same time that the Tories in particular have made such an issue of "garden grabbing".  Thus one part of the government seems to encourage intensification of back garden use and another simultaneously discourages it.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Licensing the Rented Sector

Brent Council currently has proposals to license properties rented out in the private sector.  The consultation ends on 28 February.

Should Iain Duncan Smith Deliver the Alternative Christmas Message

In a couple of days, the Queen will be doing her usual broadcast and sticking (I imagine) to her usual themes of the nation working together praising public service and some gentle references to the relevance of the Christian message.  Would it not make for a bracing alternative if Iain Duncan Smith were to broadcast an alternative Christmas message?

He could make it clear that he hates large numbers of British people, smear the working poor as dysfunctional scroungers, finally come clean on his ambition to replace the welfare state with food banks or perhaps nothing at all.  He could throw in some of his famously misleading statistics ( even the Economist questioned his honesty on this, saying "questionable numbers have floated out of Iain Duncan Smith's office into the public debate like raw sewage".  The Queen's broadcast usually has some fairly strong visuals.  Possibly Martin Rowson could be asked to try his hand an animation?  I would suggest that Mr Duncan Smith dress up as The Grinch, but as the Grinch changes his mind that wouldn't really fit Mr Duncan Smith's character.

I understand that the Queen's Christmas broadcast no longer seems to get the attention it used to, perhaps Mr Duncan Smith could perform that traditional Tory function of promoting the monarchy by using a simultaneous alternative broadcast to force people to switch channels?

Sunday, 22 December 2013

How Long Can Iain Duncan Smith Last

Iain Duncan Smith appears to have got himself in a confrontation with the Trussell Trust.  Iain Duncan Smith is denying the obvious truth that the explosion in the Trust's food bank usage from about 41,000 in 2010 to about half a million now has nothing to do with the government's "reforms".  His junior minister explicitly welcomes the expansion of food banks, and I find it hard not to believe that the pauperisation of large numbers of people is an actual objective of the Tory government.

Adding to that, ministers have presided over the incompetent implementation of the universal credit, whilst simultaneously undermining their own policy with on the go cuts.  

David Cameron will surely have to remove Iain Duncan Smith.  This is not because Mr Duncan Smith is so obviously cruel, stupid and mendacious.  It is because he has become all too successful in conveying the Tory priorities of tax cuts for the rich and food banks for the poor.  The stark unfairness of the government in punishing the most vulnerable is David Cameron's own policy, but Iain Duncan Smith makes it so obvious that he is surely too much of a political liability to continue.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Activity Around Wembley Civic Centre

It is striking how the Brent Civic Centre is coming into its own as the whole area fills up with activity.  The London Design Outlet is a key part of this, but the area should also soon benefit from the renting of retail space in the Civic Centre, the use of the area outside for events such as markets and the ongoing development of areas such as the former Palace of Industry site.

Following requests tap water is now available in the Melting Pot, and an ATM has been added outside the library entrance.

Of course, this needs to go hand in hand with developments such as better crossing facilities on Fulton Road and improved bus connections, but the naysayers who have decried the Civic Centre for so long have surely been proved wrong.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Economics and Climate Change

In a recent political debate I attended, the case for action on climate change was presented essentially as an economic burden, which is largely the George Osborne take on the subject.  In fact, climate change could create economic opportunities by creating new markets for green energy, and cheaper ways of doing things, as suggested here.

You can also look at it as a pay now, or pay more later problem.  If we don't deal with the problems of climate change now, the cost of dealing with them in future may be far higher.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Next Local Government Settlement

Yesterday various crucial figures for local authority funding were published.  It is too soon to assess what they probably mean, but I will be amazed if there are not various land mines set about to make the life of local authorities even more impossible.

Parliamentary Expenses

Lord Hanningfield is reported to be abusing parliamentary expenses.  He feels he is being persecuted and that he is effectively merely doing his job.  Previously, he was actually convicted of fraud.  In any normal job, a person convicted of fraud would be removed from their position, and would no longer be in a position to fiddle the system.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Austerity Britain

The Guardian has an unremittingly bleak overview of poverty and suffering in Britain caused by the government's inept and ideological approach.  Many of the government's "reforms" have been pushed through without even attempting to work out the impact, which by the way probably makes them unlawful.  The saddest thing is that if government ministers read such articles, I suspect that they simply would not care.

Moberly Sports Centre Application

The application for Moberly Sports Centre has finally been put forward.  If successful, this would mean that both Vale Farm and Moberly would have had substantial investment despite David Cameron's eternal austerity agenda.


The comment below is actually quite wrong.  This is not an exhaustive list, but one could mention the recent £1.7 million investment in Vale Farm Sports Centre, the refurbishment of Kilburn Library, the refurbishment of Ealing Road library, Brent's first completely new library for twenty odd years at Wembley, the rebuild of Willesden Green Library Centre, Brent's first new park for twenty years or so in Chalkhill, the opening of Villiers Road park in Willesden, one of Europe's most environmentally friendly buildings in the Civic Centre, a major redevelopment of Harlesden Town Centre, and a host of new housing in Wembley, South Kilburn and elsewhere.

As well as these physical investments there are a number of service transformations in terms of improved recycling, greater personalisation of adult social services and a range of other services.  Despite a far harder financial situation, the record of achievements in 2010 to 2014 is far greater than under the Tory/Liberal Democrat administration of 2006 to 2010.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Political Priorities and Budgets

Martin Francis is seeking to persuade people there is some magic way for Councils like Brent to avoid setting balanced budgets.  In fact Councils are required to set a balanced budget.  If a Council breaks down (like Anglesey), it can have commissioners put in to pass a budget without any public accountability.

Where Martin and I could agree is that the Tory government's austerity programme is utterly self defeating because it destroys economic growth.  It is also pretty clearly now admitted that it is an ideological project to shrink the state.  One might add that David Cameron and Nick Clegg have both been accused of misleading people in their defence of the cuts programme.  The only solution to this bigger picture would be the election of a government without an ideological commitment to shrink the state, and that can only mean a Labour government.

However, that does not alter the position of a local authority such as Brent which has to carry on delivering services to sometimes vulnerable residents to the best of its ability.  Senior local authority figures have argued that on present trends this will become impossible.  They may be right, but in order to limit the damage as much as possible, we have to be as imaginative as possible.  Simply objecting to any change just won't do.  Instead, we have to identify areas where we should no longer attempt to do things (As Brent did for instance with regard to festival spending), where we can do things more efficiently (as Brent has done in a range of procurements, notably the public realm contract) and where we can do things in a totally different way (as Brent did with the introduction of alternate weekly collections).

That means being hard headed about what the priorities are, which is the essence of political choice.  Martin's "just say no" approach is not even possible to implement, and in any case is a negation of political choice, and in fact a retreat into mindless small minded conservatism.

Britain's only Green Council is itself struggling with these realities in Brighton.  It is noteworthy that the people responsible for making the budget (led by the wonderfully named Mr Kitcat) are trying to get on with it, whilst local Green MP Caroline Lucas is sitting on the sidelines trying to distance herself from her own colleagues.  Incidentally, the Brighton Greens appear to divide themselves into a whole set of different fruits; I wonder where the Brent Greens would fit in the salad?


A response to the two comments below can be found in this post.

Monday, 16 December 2013

The Curious Case of the Barham Park Planning Appeal

Back in November, the Planning Committee was asked for permission to change the use of the various buildings that used to be the house of Mr Barham.  I absented myself from that item, because I had been party to awarded the contract to the new tenant ACAVA, so I felt there might be an appearance of bias.  Officers recommended granting permission, but the Committee decided to refuse, which would make it impossible for ACAVA to use it for artists' studios as intended.

The curiosity of this situation is that the application was made by the Council in its role as Trustee of the Barham Park charity.  On Tuesday last week, the Charity decided to appeal the decision, meaning that the Council is now appealing against a decision of its own Planning Committee.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Public Realm Contract in Brent

The Public Realm Contract has now been agreed by Brent Council.  The attempt to create a controversy over the bidding process appears to have petered out as quickly as it appeared quite a long way into the negotiation. 

This allows us to pay more attention to what the contract is actually about, waste collection, street cleaning and grounds maintenance in Brent.  A lot of work was done in the lead up to the formal tender to make sure that the process was really competitive.  The previous administration signed a contract in 2007 that didn't really get value for money, because Veolia weren't really put on the spot to justify winning the business.  A number of signals went out thius time to achieve the opposite.  These included, investment in a depot in Alperton, changing the contract for the blue top bin waste to a different supplier, and refusing to extend the lifetime of the existing contract.  The result was a genuinely competitive examination of the issues that should set us up well for future progress.

However, Brent will have to make sure that it clients the process well so that the new ways of doing things are adhered to and that the contract works well over time.  Different ways of doing things include:  banded town centre collections, a very different role for the contractor in communications,  an output focused approach to street cleaning, greater emphasis on waste reduction,  different street gritting arrangements,  different waste collection expectations, maybe smaller bins lower carbon emissions, weekend cleaning in parks.  This is in addition to all the fairly substantial changes made during the life of the current contract including alternate weekly collections, and the package of measures introduced at the start of this financial year

Agreeing all this is a substantial achievement, but keeping on top of it during the life of the contract will also need attention, and will be one of the big challenges going forward.


I got a little further detail on the public realm contract here

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Walls of Colour at Brent Civic Centre

The Walls of Colour exhibit that was partly painted by Kensal Green residents, and partly paid for by Kensal Green ward working, is on display at the Brent Civic Centre.  Unfortunately, this image doesn't really convey the scale of the picture, which is about ten feet high.

Closure of a Free School

Michael Gove has decided to close a free school in West Sussex.  You have to read quite a way into the piece to discover the fate of the 65 children.  They are being shunted into a local primary school.  So, as well as costing a great deal of money and providing poor quality education, this school is now disrupting another school locally where the local authority are expected to sort out the mess.

Perhaps that should give Mr Gove pause for thought.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Further Details on Mitre Bridge and Old Oak Stadium

I have a little further detail on Mitre Bridge.  Work is likely to be tendered for in Summer 2014, with physical work beginning in September and ending in March 2015.  I imagine that timetable may still be subject to change as these things generally are.

In a further note, Queens Park Rangers are apparently contemplating building a new Stadium just south of Willesden Junction.

National CIFPA Figures on Libraries

Some top line figures on libraries nationally are available here.  Fairly gloomy reading.  Generally performance down in significant respects, although it is interesting to see how web visits bounce up and down.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Mitre Bridge Update

I am trying to get further details, but I understand that a strengthening of Mitre Bridge off Scrubs Lane is scheduled for 2014/15.  This has the potential to divert lots of heavy goods traffic that currently chokes Harlesden Town Centre away from residential areas.  I have been pursuing the issue for some years, so it is good to see some progress at last.

According to my present information,  the plans are for a two way bridge capable of carrying vehicles up to 40 tons.

Harlesden Town Centre Works

Another quick update on the Harlesden Town Centre works.  The first phase of works on Harlesden Town Centre is due to be complete by Christmas, with phase 2 beginning on 6 January.  This should allow a slightly easier flow of traffic during the immediate Christmas period.  Tavistock Road is due to be closed off until the traffic turn around on Manor Park Road. 

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Kensal Green Planning Issues

I thought I would do a short update on some Kensal Green Planning issues that have been rumbling on.

The former Willesden Social Club site on the corner of Rucklidge Avenue has yet another application in.  This sounds quite similar to the previous ones, although this time the units are intended to be "affordable".  The applicant is Origen Housing, which are already quite advanced in their work on the former Service Station site on Harlesden High Street.

The Green Man, which successfully got planning permission to regularise its status after an unauthorised conversion, has yet to do anything about the new planning permission it has.  I gather the enforcement team have now paid another visit and threatened prosecution unless quick progress is made.

There is a long running issue about the church at the top of Scrubs Lane.  The original planning permission included the erection of a set of giraffe heads.  I cannot actually recall the art in question, but they were apparently subject to metal theft.   However, there is still a planning condition for artwork on the site.  I am told that progress is slowly being made, and that a design is now available that the planners consider a suitable concept.

Park House behind the Harlesden Tesco is now well on the way to completion.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Favourite Books

Via Public Libraries News, interesting to see the most favoured titles in Scotland's jails.  I wonder what an equivalent list for Brent might look like?

A Return to Colocation and Libraries

Thanks to Leon for the recent comment on my arts and libraries post. Thinking a bit more about my post on arts and libraries on Friday, I think another way to look at this is in co-location terms.  Co-location is a buzzword in the library world at the moment, perhaps rather too much so.

Where it is done well, the various services can become mutually reinforcing.  I would say that this is part of the success of the new Wembley Library.  Key to the success is accepting the value of each of the services co-located, and not treating any of them as just an add on.  Thus, the Revenues and Benefits service just above Wembley Library are not squeezed into the space.  They had a space custom designed for their needs.  The Registration service on the other side of the atrium similarly had a proper space and wedding garden designed for their needs.

In some areas there has been a suspicion that different disparate activities are just being crowded in together to save money.  This is true, for example, of the public reaction to the sculpture gallery in Bury.  It is also a sensitivity whenever a library hosts a perhaps noisy arts event.

Leon, in his comment on my original post, points out that he is making a comment around dividing a common pot.  I see where that is coming from, but some arts funding comes not from a common pot, but from an arts only source.  I suppose I am suggesting that the key thing to look at is where can we combine different revenue streams so that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." We need to combine people from different interests _ arts, libraries, public health _ together.  Each has its own justification.  The important thing is to value each appropriately and get them to work together.

Incidentally, I saw that Public Libraries News referred to libraries in Greater Manchester, where there seems to be plenty to be gloomy about.  The exception was in Salford.  Here the budget is reported to have been cut by half a million pounds, but visitor numbers have gone up from 799,240 in 2008/9 to 1,381,928 in 2012/13.  That is a remarkable increase in usage.  Their web site doesn't seem very clear on how they have managed such growth despite a declining budget, but I suspect getting all their leisure activities working together probably has something to do with it. 

Monday, 9 December 2013

Cllr Dhiraj Kataria Behavior

I blogged a few days ago that Cllr Dhiraj Kataria has left Labour to join the Liberal Democrats.  This partly makes for Cllr Carol Shaw defecting from Brent Liberal Democrats to the Tories (Which I think relieved some of her colleagues), and Cllr David Clues long awaited resignation as a councillor.  One up, two down for the Liberal Democrats. 

However, my own feelings are of relief that he is no longer a Labour Councillor.  I had similar feelings when Bertha Joseph defected.  It was good to no longer be even tangentially associated with her embarrassing behavior.  Similarly, it is good to no longer have a party colleague telling residents to go to hell.  Of course his worst behavior was what the solicitor writing the investigating report (paragraph 6.10) referred to as Dhiraj Kataria admitting to having "lied to his fellow-councillors and to me", which is astonishingly strong language for a solicitor.  He also tried to cast the blame for leaking things on to other members of the Labour Group.

This behavior actually caused Brent Labour Group to expel him for an indefinite period.  Under the rules, he was allowed to reapply to join the Labour Group again, which he did in early 2013.  One assumes that at this time, he was happy with the way the Labour Party functioned.  I suspect those of my colleagues who voted by a narrow margin to readmit him probably regret their misguided generosity.

In any case, it will be easier to deal with such an individual as an avowed political opponent than as a colleague.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Science and Policy Making

Nature and the Guardian have two excellent pieces, one advising policy makers about science and the scientists about policy making.  The gap between these two worlds was one of the things that most struck me in my recent reading of Bad Pharma.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Local Authority Electricity Generation

I was interested to read of a growing trend towards municipal electricity generation.  Brent is doing this in two ways.

On a small scale Brent is now itself an electricity generator.  The new Civic Centre uses waste fish products as a renewable fuel for a generator in the basement.  This is expected to power all the Civic Centre's electricity needs, with surplus power being sold on the grid.  Three years ago I asked about using buildings for solar installations, but was told the payback time would take too long.  However, it would be good to keep this idea in mind in case the economics change.  Parking meters have long had solar panels, and it is imaginable that certain kinds of street furniture might be suitable.  There may also be some scope for some Council owned or school buildings to be used.

The authorities that do this on a sufficient scale (and that sounds a lot more practical for somewhere like Southampton than for Brent) will also have the advantage of an inherent hedge against electricity price rises.  If prices up, an authority that is a substantial power generator can offset the higher cost of consumption by selling its own electricity at a higher price.

The second area where the Council can affect this agenda is in planning requirements.  We routinely require new buildings to generate at least an element of their own electricity.  Current planning policy also includes provision for district heating schemes in South Kilburn and in Wembley.  Neither of these are live yet, but there is potential for substantial numbers of homes to be connected once a critical mass is achieved.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Iain Duncan Smith and the Latest Universal Credit Failure

Characteristically sliding out the admission under the cover of more high profile events, Iain Duncan Smith has now admitted to the latest stage if his universal credit failure.  I find it frustrating that our political culture allows these failures of basic political competence with impunity whilst punishing what are often just gaffes or minor personal failings.


Really what planet is Iain Duncan Smith on?  He really does seem to think he can just plough on regardless of the real world.  Well done to Rachel Reeves for holding him to account.

Arts, Libraries and Library Campaigners

Public Libraries News has a rather negative take on North Yorkshire's success in getting grant money for artists in residence in their libraries.  The criticism is echoed by various other campaigners.  I think this is a very misguided approach.

Firstly, I don't agree with the view that the arts are a kind of nice add on that can be dispensed with when budgets tighten (Let us leave to one side whether budgets actually need to tighten or whether the whole eternal austerity agenda is just ideological).  If you want to have arts activity at all, you need to sustain it.  It cannot simply be switched on and off like an electric light.  There needs to be a physical infrastructure and a skills base.  If you do away with this base, it is enormously difficult to build it back up again;  what I believe economists call hysteresis

Secondly, the arts are a significant contributor to society as a whole.  You can argue for this in economic terms, as I have with regard to the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, the new Library Centre in Willesden, and the Civic Centre in Wembley.  In each case, the arts events help draw people towards those Town Centres and get people spending on local businesses.

There are much wider social benefits as well.  I think for instance of all the work that the Tricycle does with drama workshops.  Some of these artists in residence may well contribute to the core business of libraries of promoting reading as Brent's poet laureate did. 

Another possibility is that the artists in residence or other arts events help to attract audiences who perhaps have old fashioned views of libraries.  Brent's artist in residence at Kilburn Library spent a significant amount of effort trying to reach out to people in South Kilburn. The ability to attract new users is certainly characteristic of Brent Dance Month, that brings many people into libraries who are not normally library users. 

Above all, this kind of stuff is fun, and people do need some fun in libraries even (or perhaps especially) when the outlook for libraries and local government is so very bleak. 

Thursday, 5 December 2013

More Problems at A and E

The self defeating nature of the government's austerity programme is being laid bare in Accident and Emergency again.  The cut backs in other parts of the NHS and in Social Services are pushing people towards emergency provision and thereby overwhelming capacity in that provision.  This is the exact opposite of what should be happening.  More preventative care should be taking pressure off emergency provision, which would make treatment more effective in many cases and probably cheaper as well.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Intelligent Street Lighting

The Scotsman carries an interesting story about intelligent street lighting in Glasgow.  As I mentioned before, I think this is an area that Brent is going to have to look at over the next few years.

It last attracted political attention in the Borough in the run up to the 1998 elections.  Back then, one of the Labour Party's key election pledges was to renew Brent's street lighting.  This was done by what was for the time an innovative PFI contract, which is still running.  I believe it finishes in 2018. The 1998 debate was largely about crime, but I suspect in 2018, we will be more focused on carbon emissions and the cost of electricity.

However, street lighting technology constantly changes so it would be good to explore whether it is possible to adapt the Glasgow pilot to Brent needs.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Council Tax Arrears

Recent reports confirm that the grim picture for Council Tax summons in Brent is no isolated case.  Essentially all these authorities have been passed an impossible choice of making even deeper cuts in services or making up the difference in Council Tax.  This is no accident but a deliberate choice by Eric Pickles in his efforts to wreck local democracy.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Cllr Dhiraj Kataria

I understand that Cllr Dhiraj Kataria has left the Labour Group to join the Liberal Democrats.  Some may recall that Cllr Kataria has had dealings with the Liberal Democrats before.  Those dealings involved an accusation that the then Leader of the Council had interfered in a planning application.  Oddly, these breaches had supposedly occurred some time before the actual accusation was placed, Cllr John was completely exonerated.

The actual allegation was made by Cllr Paul Lorber on the basis of information passed to him by Cllr Kataria.  Cllr Paul Lorber subsequently refused to reveal the source of the information to the investigating officer, something I thought odd at the time.

Now Cllr Kataria is reported to have joined the Liberal Democrats.

Registry Office Services

I notice, amidst all the gloom in local government, that there is some good news at the next Brent Executive.  Brent has a longstanding shared registery office arrangment with Barnet.  Happily, this service has not been bundled into Barnet's ill advised mass privatisation of public services.

Instead, it is proposed that Brent take over the Barnet services and run them on Barnet's behalf, which benefits the two Boroughs by a saving the region of £150,000 on a total spend of a little under £1 million.  It doesn't seem to me to lead to any likely diminution in service.  The more such genuine efficiency savings can be found the fewer cuts there will be.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Automatic Library Membership Schemes

Given that libraries offer a free service, it is surprising that such a small proportion of the population use them, and one way I have been trying to get round this is automatically enrol school children in libraries.  Brent actually formed part of an ACE pilot for this, but with only mixed success.

There seems to be a surprising reluctance by schools to engage with such a scheme.  There is also a problem around the UK's data protection laws, which mean that you effectively have to use the school address as a home address.  Thus, although you often see school parties at Brent libraries, the take up is patchy.

I still think that such schemes could have a part to play, however, and I am hoping Brent will be able to engage with a major employer or two to see whether automatic library membership could be extended to adults.