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Friday, 31 January 2014

Facts on Flooding and Austerity

Simon Wren Lewis published some facts on flooding and austerity last month.  David Cameron et all should have a look at them and decide whether to reverse course.

Alisdair Gray

I have been reading some of the short stories of Alasdair Gray.  Despite his cantankerous public persona, his stories are remarkable.  Some of them remind me of Kafka.  I recommend them to anyone who hasn't tried them.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Take over the Tricycle Theatre

Young people take over the Tricycle Theatre here.  This is just the kind of thing that Brent Council should encourage in terms of community involvement.  The Tricycle does a great job of keeping Kilburn High Road as a thriving urban centre and the arts can do this for all sorts of places and society in general.  This is the kind of thing that the Labour Party is now examining here.

Public Realm Contract Follow Up

I have already covered the Public Realm Contract in a number of posts.  This is is one of the most important contracts of the past four years and the negotiating process took years to get to the present outcome.

Bin Collections
I had the opportunity to talk to one of the senior officers about it a few days ago, and was pleased to find that my concerns about curtilage collections seem to have been misplaced.  These are an important part of the financial savings since they allow fewer bin men to be employed.  They got a soft start in November, and a fuller enforcement in January.  So far, compliance is in the region of 98%, which greatly exceeds my expectations.

The same conversation allowed me to find out more about the eventual communication arrangements.  Responsibility for communications will pass from the Council to Veolia, who are hugely increasing the budget available.  This was apparently very important to Veolia during the competitive dialogue.  Their argument was that effective communications are crucial to making the contract work in terms of reducing waste, upping recycling and so on.  Those who, like Eric Pickles, think of Council communications as just waste or at best a frippery that can be easily disposed of, should think about that.

London Living Wage
The final element that the conversation covered was the assurance that all the contractor's employees will be paid London Living Wage or above.  The cost of this is about £55k a year, which is a fairly modest addition to such a big contract.  Some campaigners say they have found this information difficult to obtain.  I would have thought that if Brent Council is serious in achieving LLW it has to map out where it is being paid and where not.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Public Ownership and Regulation

I was interested in seeing this plea for public ownership.  It seems the debate always seem to assume that there is a sharp divide of public ownership (meaning total control) or private ownership (leading to no public control.  I think the answer is much more interesting.

Public ownership seems to be assumed to give the politician at the top automatic control over what goes on in the organisation.  I think it gives more control, but you just have to look at the NHS to realise that big organisations need people capable of follow through for changes to happen.  In other words, nationalisation can simply mean that governance is in the hands of a set of anonymous unelected managers.

What I find more interesting is the potential of regulation to control private business.  Of course, all companies are already subject to various legal restrictions and regulations.  These are often said to be too intrusive, although attempts to strip away say planning powers can cause problems of their own.

The big gap in this debate seems to me to be the lack of oversight of the former nationalised industries.  Given the governance mechanisms were all set up by the Thatcher government, it is not surprising that they were designed to limit political interference, but there are legitimate questions about the direction of some of these industries that should be the subject of debate.  In the water industry for instance, should companies aim primarily for the lowest cost to consumers, supporting British industry through procurement and training, becoming national champions, reducing pollution and raising water quality or simply maximising profits?  There are legitimate arguments for each of those objectives, and one might expect a regulator to take an interest in them.  Why shouldn't the public and elected representatives also have a say?

The odd thing is that this kind of thinking is quite old.  Harold Wilson, in his bonfire of controls days, was much more sophisticated than modern politicians. 

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

George Galloway Hatred

How revolting to see this latest attack by George Galloway on Muslim candidates in Hampstead and Kilburn.  The man just hops from area to area whipping up hatred.  A repulsive spectacle.

David Cameron and the Green Crap

David Cameron's pledge to rip up green regulations really brings out my inner cynic.  The Guardian chronicles the long term move away from pledging the "greenest government ever" to wanting to remove the "green crap".  It is ironic that this latest attempt to reduce environmental protections comes as climate change denialist Owen Paterson gets told by the people of Somerset what the real cost of ignoring environmental protection is. 

Aside from ignoring the damaging effects of climate change, David Cameron appears not to understand the potential role of environmental regulations in potentially boosting the economy.  For instance, a major investment in cutting the emissions from the UK's notoriously draughty housing stock could create lots of jobs in the building trades, investing in alternative power generation could help fuel exports, or investing in flood defences could create direct jobs and sellable services for other countries.

Instead, we have the tired Tory ideology that assumes all regulation is automatically bad, coupled with Cameron's studied vagueness as to what he wants to cut.  David Cameron's previous record of half baked announcements makes me wonder whether this latest speech is more than a headline grabber.  It may be that it is possible to streamline, say, Conservation standards for homes, but has anyone in the Government really looked through the details to think what the costs and upsides actually are?

Monday, 27 January 2014

ALMO Developments

Red Brick raises ALMOs (Arms Length Management Organisations).  Brent was an early adoptee of the ALMO model, back around 1999/2000. From what I recall, the argument was purely pragmatic.  The then Labour government was offering lots of money to Councils that adopted the ALMO model to bring housing up to "decent home" standards.

Unfortunately in some authorities, notably Camden, the whole issue became enormously controversial.  The government refused the money unless ALMO status was adopted.  The local council, partly under the influence of a fierce campaign against "privatisation" by the Camden New Journal, refused.  After bitter conflict, there was no Camden ALMO, and no money to go with it. As a result, Council housing in Camden remains in a poor state.

By 2010, the financial incentives has run out.  Councils like Islington and Brent considered taking their authority housing back into a "traditional" model.  Islington did so.  Brent did not.  As part of this process we were shown analysis of how different kinds of governance worked in different authorities, and there seemed to be little difference between the different models, so we kept the existing ALMO structure.  It all makes the debates in Camden seem a huge misdirection of energy and resources.

Red Brick's blogpost is prompted by an ALMO manifesto being published.  This has a number of ideas for future changes, including managing private properties and building more homes, but as always there are severe financial restrictions.

Liberal Democrat Sex Scandal

Less noticed than the Rennard case is another with allegations of sexual impropriety down in Portsmouth.  Local MP Mike Hancock is holding on to his seat in the Portsmouth Executive (He is also a councillor).  It illustrates how hard it can be to bring a senior councillor to book for wrongful behaviour.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

The Limits of Localism

Localgovernmentlawyer has a brief survey about the use of the new "community" provisions of the Localism Act.  The magazine feels that there are very few examples of these provisions are being used.  It is as if the government had just passed measures for the sake of newspaper headlines without regard to them being actually implicated.

Jan Gehl Meets Dave Hill

Dave Hill has an interview with Jan Gehl here.  Jan Gehl is one of the leading advocates of making urban areas less car dependent and more for the benefit of people.  He points out that London is struggling to meet these ideals.  one of the things he doesn't mention is that many councillors are highly resistant to his way of thinking and still think of the car as the answer.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Library Buildings and Services

 A row has broken out about the right count of library buildings in the UK.  The campaigners are right that it is rather strange for a government department supposedly superintending libraries in local authorities not to keep any figures of its only, but only rely on the goodwill of an individual writing Public Libraries News.  The DCMS should surely pay its Civil Servants to do some proper monitoring themselves.

However, I think they are mistaken in concentrating on buildings rather than services.  The risk of that approach is that you end up with what we are increasingly seeing of buildings being kept open in nominal terms but only as hollowed out libraries.

The most obvious way in which this seems to be done is via volunteer libraries, where the volunteers (with the best will in the world) just can't provide the same range or quality of services as paid staff.  One might also suspect that the hard grind of trying to routinely provide some sort of library service will eventually dishearten even the most dedicated volunteer.

Where libraries are kept inhouse or contracted out to someone like Greenwich Leisure, there can also be a hollowing out process.  This may be subtler _ shaving off opening hours, reducing bookfunds, allowing PC software to go out of date without upgrading, even failing to maintain the building or interior decoration _ but it will have an effect just the same.

I think that means that you have to pay attention to the outputs you want.  I say outputs rather than inputs (i.e. money spent) because measuring the money you put in or the number of staff by itself might just inefficiency.  For example, suppose a library service got a really good deal on bookstock and was able to buy 10% more books with the same amount of money as its neighbour.  If you are only looking at budget levels you will see no difference, but in fact the authority buying the cheaper books has managed to run a genuinely more efficient service that enhances the library for the users.

Output measurements like number of visitors, book loans and so are more explicitly targeted at what is good for the users.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Government Policy and Volunteer Libraries

CILIP have criticised the government for using its web site to promote volunteer libraries without explicit ministerial sign off.  I find their concern a little strange, as there is no doubt that volunteer libraries are what Tory ministers want.  They have apparently even stopped meeting those who represent paid library staff, and they don't seem interested in the quality of the library service.

It is quite easy to see this as an example of how the government is dismantling public services, following a stage by stage and self reinforcing process.  Namely:

1) Denigrate local government staff as lazy, overpaid etc. (just the pronouncements of Eric Pickles give you plenty of examples)
2) Replace high quality professional services (such as Brent's library service) with underfunded poorly designed services staffed by volunteers who inevitably don't have the same skills as permanent staff.
3) Attack the resulting poor quality services as not worth taxpayers money, and therefore reduce funding still further.
4) Return to step one and begin again.

Resisting such a cycle means being strong minded in defining what the service is and how to measure its quality, not getting sidetracked.  In other words, defending value for money as opposed to the cheapest option.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Do We Really Need Water Cannon

The ACPO request for water cannon strikes me as more a bureaucrat led demand for money in the manner of the suggested national ID card scheme.  Three possible uses in a decade sounds pretty flimsy usage for such big and I presume expensive equipment.  I also multiple vehicles would have to be deployed in different parts of the country so that they could be called up for supposed need.  It also seems that technology has outpaced this solution.  The student protests in 2011 came together and dispersed far too quickly for water cannon to have been effectively brought to bear.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Poverty and Brent Labour Party

The recent Council meeting saw Labour Councillors pushed to support a Council Tax Support scheme we would not do in ordinary circumstances.  We had a number of usual suspects attacking us in a way I have described previously. We also had the Tories joining in, in an act of daring hypocrisy given their eternal austerity priority.

My own view is that we have to have a Poverty Fund in the way other Councils are doing.  It looks like Crisis Payments are being abolished by the Tory Government.  I think it sensible to try to pool various grants in one scheme to protect the poorest.  While that could make use of the residue of the crisis payment scheme, it would need some ongoing funding

I envisage such a source of funding being a rise in Council Tax.  Granted some people regard this as automatically beyond the Pale, but Brent has not had a Council Tax rise since 2010.

Whereas the previous Liberal Democrat administration promised to freeze the Council tax and in fact raised it. I don't think that had anything to do with their election defeat.  They were just unpopular for more general reasons.

I think a lot of ordinary voters would be quite sympathetic to a fund targeted to people in real need.

Comments welcome.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Right to Buy Housing Disaster

I am a bit late in coming to this report by Tom Copley which analyses what a disaster Right to Buy has been for housing in London.  The taxpayer has paid for the homes to be built, paid for them to be sold at a discount, lost the rental income, and all too often now pays the rents of homeless families renting it from the beneficiary of Right to Buy.

That system makes no kind of sense from the taxpayer's point of view.

Brent Council Shambles

Last night's Full Council meeting descended into a shambles.  As has happened before, a small number of individuals in the public gallery were so disruptive that the entire Council meeting removed  to another room.  I imagine the individuals concerned, who numbered not more than ten, congratulated themselves on this result.  They seem to think shouting other people down is democratic, although I think it is rather the opposite.

I have long thought that the debates in Brent Council are of extremely poor quality, with little or nothing of substance being said, but that does not justify the anti-social behaviour involved.


I referred to shouting other people down because you disagree with them as undemocratic, which it is.  The various figures were all in front of councillors in the reports of the meeting (I wonder whether any of the protesters read these? They are on the Council web site).  I also wonder why the protesters did not attend the original meting that passed this scheme back in December 2012, or contribute in any way to that consultation (The January 2014 meeting was simply an annual review).  I have described the decision making process here.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Mosaic in Furness Pocket Park

Kensal Green Streets is promoting an event supported by Brent Council Ward Working at St Marks Church on 25 January in St Marks Church Hall between 10.30am and 3.30 pm.  Volunteers (minimum age five) are wanted to do work on a mosaic in Furness Pocket Park.  I think this is a really lovely scheme that helps unite our community and improve our local park so I hope as many people as possible can make it.

An experienced artist, Debra Collis, will oversee the work.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Street Lighting Savings

Edinburgh is claiming that it can save substantial amounts through improved street lighting.  They reckon they can get a saving of up to 40% on their street lighting bills.  The proportion of saving is likely to go up over time since the carbon taxes Councils have to pay are only likely to go up, and the price of electricity is widely feared to be on the rise.  Brent's very success in reducing its carbon emissions through the new Civic Centre means that a bigger and bigger proportion of carbon emissions come from street lighting.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Birmingham and Automatic Library Cards

Birmingham is considering an automatic library card system for school children, according to the Birmingham Post.  Good as this sounds in theory, the practice is rather harder.

After reading a blog by Michael Rosen, I was enthused by this idea, and Brent became one of the pilot schemes for the concept.  The various schemes are listed here.  The Brent one emphasised not only giving children cards, but also actively promoting the service to them.  It is actually very hard to get schools to look outside their own boundaries.  I have also found this with other areas such as use of study space or sports facilities.  I understand the reluctance to involve the non-school community in the use of school facilities, but I find the library example puzzling.  I think the lesson to draw, is make sure you are measuring the actual success, rather than making assumptions.

This is one of the reasons I distrust Ed Vaizey's promotion of volunteer libraries.  He doesn't seem to have any evidence that they perform as well as Council run libraries, or even that they cost less.

Still I wish Birmingham every success.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Wireless IT and Brent Libraries

Our wireless equipment provider obviously feels proud of its job at Brent Civic Centre.  I have a limited understanding of such things, but there is no doubt that the technology has helped reduce the carbon footprint of Council employees as well as cutting costs.

I think that such wireless technology is likely to drive even greater changes in libraries than we have seen in the past few years,  it looks like ranks of desktop computers at desks will become less common and people bringing their own devices and using them on sofas become much more so.  I wish the public debate on libraries would focus more on these social changes and how to meet them, rather than being dominated by the fate of buildings and anecdotes from childhood.

Brent Crisis Payments

I have had a little more detail about Brent's local version of crisis payments following my earlier post on their threatened abolition by central government.  This has the potential to inflict real hardship on the poorest of the poor, and may well lead to knock on costs for other services.

The take up for Brent up to October was fairly poor, spending about 16% of the total budget.  This was apparently down to the budget being based on figures from the DWP that turned out to be wrong, and partly because Brent (like most authorities) was cautious in designing its scheme.  Certainly I can't believe it is down to lack of need given the huge rise in use of food banks.  Like food banks, crisis payments are intended for use for short term emergencies, not as a long term provision.

News of the impending wholesale cut in funding is now holding the Council back from publicising the help that is budgeted for, since it may shortly be gone.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Free School Costs Escalate

I was interested to see that the costs of the free schools programme has escalated, according to a National Audit Office report.

One of Michael Gove's first decisions as Education Secretary was to abolish Building Schools for the Future.  This hit Brent badly as we had been promised funds to rebuild Alperton, Copland and Newman, as well as extra investment in Queens Park Community School.  The reason Mr Gove gave at the time was that Building Schools for the Future was overly bureaucratic and expensive.  The LGA suggested that scrapping the whole scheme would actually cost a number of Councils dear, but Michael decided that he knew best.

He has now apparently doubled the cost per school.  This is despite being built to lower standards in terms of space and building specifications (I wonder what the long term cost of that will be by the way).  Further costs are incurred as Michael is trying to open all these schools as quickly as possible, meaning sticking some of them into temporary premises.

The NAO also criticise Mr Gove for not collating evidence in a systematic manner to improve performance in the management of the programme.  Although the Education department ask the NAO to not that it feels it has struck "an appropriate balance" between pace and value for money, the NAO rather pointedly makes no such statement itself.

Along with the deliberate secrecy with which Michael Gove surrounds his choice of site and sponsors, it is hard to have confidence that the whole programme is well managed.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Contract Pitfalls

A recent Guardian article has caused me to reflect on what we need to think about in our contracts monitoring.  The Guardian focus is on a massive outsourcing contract to Capita in Birmingham.  This is the same company that causes so much controversy in Barnet, just across our Borough boundary.  Given that Brent already has a large number of contracts, I thought it would be good to analyse how we can avoid the kind of problems you see there and in other Councils.

A big problem that Barnet and Birmingham have given themselves is the sheer scale of their outsourcing contracts.  Particularly in Barnet, the sheer range of activities covered mean that very few companies will be able to bid for the business when it comes up for renewal.  This risks Capita becoming a quasi-monopoly, which would not only make a future bidding round less competitive, but also will also make normal contract monitoring harder.  After all, if the contractor thinks future business is guaranteed, he has little incentive to maintain quality.  Fortunately, it would be very hard for Brent to embark on this kind of all encompassing contract even if it wanted to.

The scale and complexity of the contract may also make it easier for the contractor to conceal which bits are extremely profitable and which bits are not.  Indeed, the contractor may not know himself, so there is a real risk of opportunities being missed.

The best answers to these sort of problems lie in open book accounting, clear targets and proper monitoring.  These should all be easier with smaller contracts like the sports centre contract we have at Willesden, rather than the great behemoths you see in Barnet.

Public Accountability
Birmingham is being criticised for hiding behind "commercial confidentiality".  I suspect that this is something of  an excuse.  Certainly a lot of data should be available to the public which can't be reasonably withheld on confidentiality grounds.  There could be individual aspects that are reasonably withheld, but this would also be the case if everything was in house.

More worrying is the length of the contract.  If the contract is for many years, it may well be harder to change its nature as political priorities change, for example following a change of majority party at an election.

Culture and Clienting
I think the most important thing is to keep an appropriate level of challenge in the relationship between commissioner and client.  People sometimes talk about contractors as if they simply want to cut costs.  In fact, it could be just as important to maintIn a reputation for quality.  Both sides also need to retain a reasonable level of give and take for the relationship to work.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Advice on Housing

The effects of the government's numerous welfare "reforms" are kicking in and I have been getting various queries from people about the increasingly grim circumstances that they find themselves in.

The Council support advice services on many subjects at Brent CAB in Willesden High Road.  You can alswo call them during normal office hours on 0845 050 5250

For housing issues, Shelter give advice on their web site here.   Shelter also have a helpline on 0808 800 4444. 

If you live in a Housing Association property, you may find that they have advice services as well.

Brent Council's housing advice services are here.  The phone number is 020 8937 2000. 

Brent Council also has some more general advice on issues such as Council Tax here.  More specific information on debts can be found here

Monday, 13 January 2014

Kilburn Times Admits Brent Libraries Improvement

After a long period of refusing to feature any positive stories about Brent libraries, the Kilburn Times has finally admitted that library usage in Brent is above London and national trends.  The story refers to figures "released today" but it seems to refer to the numbers I published in April 2013.  More up to date figures for Brent can be found here, where I published them in October 2013.  Figures on the national performance were published by CIFPA here, and referred to by me in December 2013.

The figures demonstrate the success of our Libraries Transformation Project in concentrating resources on a smaller number of sites in High Street locations open seven days a week.

Flood Defence Spending

Recently, there was a spat over whether the spending on flood defences has gone up or down.  The answer appears to be that it has gone down even as the likelihood of flooding has gone up. 

One of the interesting issues in this debate is who will be held responsible?  Flood defences are surely one of those areas where everyone ignores the problem until catastrophe strikes, as Seithenyn did in The Misfortunes of Elphin.  Given that suh floods may only happen say once in a decade, it is hard for individual ministers such Owen Paterson to be held responsible.  Therefore they have little incentive to make investments now (and therefore cuts elsewhere) in order to escape dire consequences at some future point.  The only incentive I can see is a sense of public duty and the knowledge that you are doing a good job, traits one does not associate with ministers in this government.


The government has now been forced to correct its figures, which must leave David Cameron and Owen Paterson humiliated.  Hence their leaving it to a junior minister.  There is also the question as to whether we are spending money on the right things.  George Monbiot has an interesting take here.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Do Volunteer Libraries Work as Libraries

As a result of the Brent Libraries Transformation Project, this blog has a wide number, some might say far too many, posts on public libraries.  One aspect of this subject, which seems to fascinate many people, is volunteer run libraries.  The Tory libraries minister, Ed Vaizey, seems especially starry eyed, despite the fact that volunteer libraries often arouse deep hostility among library campaigners.

Yet the information about them is really quite limited.  The kinds of questions I am thinking of are: do they have higher or lower usage?  Are they part of the overall Library Ecology? Do they maintain the same level of service?  Do they save money?  Do they add new things to to library services?  I thought I would see if I can work out if there is any evidence about them, rather than just making assumptions.  To this end I thought I would look around some examples in London.

The examples I could find in London were:

Barnet: Friern Barnet Library, Hampstead Garden Suburb
Camden: Primrose Hill Community Library, Belsize Community Library, Keats Community Library
Lewisham: Blackheath Village, Crofton Park, Grove Park, New Cross, Sydenham
Wandsworth: York Gardens Library

Usage Figures

The only figures I could find on usage were from Lewisham, and they are fairly elderly.  They seem to show a decline following the withdrawal of the Council, but Lewisham apparently no longer issues the individual library figures.  [UPDATE Lewisham now appear to have restarted issuing figures here.  The volunteer library figures have recovered so we hat, although they still seem quite small.]. Camden appear not to track the numbers of their Big Society outlets.  Wandsworth seem to have some sort of contractual arrangement with York Gardens, so I assume the Council monitors usage in some way, but I cannot find figures available online.  Friern Barnet ask people to give an address when they take a book out, so I assume they have a paper based record of how many books are borrowed, but I don't think the figures are published.

All this means it is very hard to work out whether the Big Society libraries have seen usage go up or down.  If any of these libraries are tracking either visitor numbers or books borrowed, they are presumably using a different method to the methods employed when they were public libraries in the traditional sense. 

Library Ecology

Camden have definitely separated the Big Society libraries from the wider service (eg Belsize), so that you cannot borrow a Camden library book from any of the community libraries.  Barnet appears to have a similar approach, and the Friern Barnet library site does not mention computers.  York Gardens mentions a "small children library", and does appear to be integrated with the wider GLL network in Wandsworth

Library Services

In the case of libraries separated from the parent library service, I would think the traditional library service of periodicals, books and other printed materials must have narrower limits than the traditional public libraries, simply because of the size of the collections and substantial budgets available in a Borough Library service. 

At least one community library argues that the quality of the stock has in fact gone up.  However, I find it hard to see how any isolated library could match the number of books available to the Londopn Lending consortium, which has access to getting on for seven million volumes as well as ebooks and periodicals

Saving Money

York Gardens reportedly has a £70,000 fund raising target from room hire.  I am not sure that you can describe that as additional funding, as presumably the building could be hired out for as long as it was in Council ownership.  Without published figures, it is hard to tell, but it sounds to me as if it is still getting some kind of at least in kind subsidy from the Council.  For instance, there is no mention of paying any rent.  There is also mention of drawing in a £5,000 grant from a bank, but overall I would guess York Gardens is a net cost to Wandsworth. 

Camden have dedicated a substantial "transitional" grant to Primrose Hill Library.  The total sum was reported by the CNJ as about £350k.  This does not include "rent relief."  Primrose Hill has reportedly attracted substantial additional funding, and seems capable of holding events that raise thousands of pounds.  Keats Community Library have a fundraising target of £80k, although they seem to have difficulty meeting their targets after the initial enthusiasm.

Lewisham community libraries were reported to have benefited from substantial transitional grants during set up.  Eco Computer Systems appeared to get a 25 year lease on the buildings

Services Additional to Library Use

Many of the volunteer libraries claim to be "much more than just a library".  I am really not sure what this means.  It seems to be based on an old fashioned notion of libraries as just places storing books and computers, but I think that these days library services such as Brent offer a huge range of services, as you can see from the Brent Libraries Events calendar.  These sort of things go beyond even my fairly broad definition of the statutory library duty, and I don't think any of the community libraries offer anything additional. 

Where a community library is offering services completely additional to library services, such as Eco Computer Systems IT recycling, for example, it raises the fear that the extra activity will crowd out the library use.  This has been hinted at in some of the reports.  For instance, the chief executive of The Winch (associated with Belsize library in Camden) is quoted as saying: "We hope people will buy work time and it will become a ‘community lounge’. In terms of books on shelves, that will still be there and the service will still function, but without access to Camden’s stock it will be interesting to see how much people will use the library for books.”  That sounds to me a lot like an expectation of gradual decline.

Is all this Sustainable?
This really makes me wonder whether volunteer libraries are more than a slow motion closure programme which risks draining resources away from public libraries at a time when the cuts to local government are reducing resources in any case.

I certainly can't see any prrof for Ed Vaizey's belief that volunteer libraries are hugely successful.  Quite simply, no one seems to have collected any evidence on the subject.  Nor is it all clear that they are cheaper.  We seem to have embarked on a big experiment without working out any kind of baseline or made any effort to find out the actual results.


There is a rare example of actual library numbers in volunteer libraries in Manchester here.   Again, not a good picture for advocates of a volunteer led service.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Brent Council Budget Consultation

I received an update on Brent's Budget Consultation shortly before Christmas.  It had few surprises, with the attitudes being very similar to the ones I have come across in all the previous years that I have debated the subject with people.

Unsurprisingly, very few people understood how Council finances worked.  Just like plumbing, you only really worry how it works once something goes wrong.  People didn't understand that the limits on Council spending and were surprised by the likely pressures on future spending.  There was what I always consider to be an unrealistic sense that sufficient savings could be found through cutting "waste".

Interestingly, most people believed that Council Tax had been increased since 2010, despite all the publicity about it being frozen.  More predictably, people found it very hard to identify where Council spending could be cut.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Joseph Schumpeter and the Loony Left

I caused a little stir last year by suggested that the Brent Fightback group were essentially driven by the Loony Left and that their main goal was to attack the Labour Party.

I still think this is so, but it might be worth thinking about the idea more theoretically, using the concepts of the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter.  Schumpeter suggested that political groups in a democracy behave rather as business men might be expected to.  Whereas businessmen deal in money and what ever they are selling.  Political groups are operating in a market for votes.

This makes sense of what many people consider a paradox.  Groups such as Fightback, the Green Party and so on declare themselves to be left wing.  The Labour Party is the UK's biggest left wing party and, I would argue, its only effective vehicle for progressive politics.  Why are these like minded groups not allies?

The first explanation is not Schumpeterian.  It is that the claims that such groups make are in fact untrue; that they do not really care about left wing objectives.  I think that holds a lot of water.  If you look at the reality, groups like Fightback seem much more interested in process than results.  They enjoy going on demonstrations, the warm glow of condemning other people, and show little interest in the details of policy or the actual implementation of policies.  That probably has a lot to do with the dynamics of fringe groups.

The Schumpeterian analysis is intellectually more interesting.  Groups on the loony left have a range of slogans that are unlikely to appeal to Daily Mail readers or other people of a right wing persuasion.  Whereas a broad church movement like the Labour Party has to appeal to at least a plurality of the UK electorate, the Far Left will never be able to get basically Tory voters to vote for them. Therefore they just ignore such people and are left in a field where the competition is among themselves and the Labour Party.  Taking votes off the Labour Party is effectively their only way of gaining support.  Hence they try various tactics such as claiming that there is no difference between Labour and Conservative.  These can either be head on assaults, or attempts to undermine the Labour movement from within.  People in the Labour Movement who attempt to do deals with the Far Left therefore perform the role that Lenin described as "useful idiots".

This leads to the further paradox that in many ways the extreme left actually benefit from having the most extreme right wing government in power imaginable.  A really far right government attacks Labour from the Right while the loony left hack away from the other side, forcing Labour to fight on two fronts simultaneously.  It is a situation rather similar to the Tarten Tories tactics of the SNP.  The more obnoxious the London government is to Scots, the more the SNP can denounce it.

Whether any of this benefits either local government or democracy is highly questionable.

Amazing Frozen Niagara Falls Pictures

The Guardian has some amazing pictures of the Niagara Falls frozen. Reminds me of Coleridge "Torrents methinks. That heard a mighty voice and stopped at once amidst their maddest flow."

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Wembley Library's First Half Figures

Having featured the first quarter results for Wembley Library, I thought it would be interesting to see if the progress has continued.  I first asked for these figures before I heard about Cllr Lorber's latest "proposal".  I am pleased to see the performance is even better than it was in the first quarter.

The visitor numbers are:

2013 2012 % Change

July             49,769             20,689 140.6%
August             54,222             21,028 157.9%
September             42,376             17,539 141.6%
October             62,764             17,327 262.2%
November             56,149             13,809 306.6%
December             54,712             12,328 343.8%

Total 319,992 102,720     211.5%

The figures for book borrowing are:

2013 2012 % Change

July             16,549               9,489 74.4%
August             20,205             10,652 89.7%
September             15,262               8,466 80.3%
October             16,861             10,147 66.2%
November             14,288               8,151 75.3%
December             13,115               7,590 72.8%

Total             96,280             54,495 76.7%

It therefore seems that Wembley Library is firmly on the road to success.

Another Cunning Plan from Cllr Paul Lorber

Cllr Paul Lorber is claiming to have yet another cunning plan on Brent Libraries.  As the Kilburn Times have characteristically failed to ask any questions about it, I thought I would give it a brief treatment.

The article claims that the cost would be only £400k, which is substantially below what the Council felt it saved (which was a gross figure in the region of £1 million).  Some of that £1 million was reinvested in, for instance, longer opening hours at Ealing Road, Wembley Library, Harlesden Library and Kilburn Library.  The new £400k figure also materially differed from the figures Cllr Lorber has quoted in previous schemes.

Clearly not a details man, Cllr Lorber gives us no information about integrating IT, book stock, training costs, rota management, building liabilities such as insurance and utility costs, locations of building, any form of process for assessing equality impacts or anything else.  There is also no detail on what parts of existing budgets he plans to cut (remember Cllr Lorber's Liberal Democrat/Tory coalition is planning to reduce Brent Council's budget by many millions more after the election).

This latest scheme follows a number of others.  These include:

A February 2011 proposal supposedly "fully costed" presented to the Wembley Observer.  It was never actually presented to the Council so we can have no idea if there ever was a proposal.

Downgrading Wembley Library.  This would not save any money, and would probably have cost more, so Cllr Lorber's support (and that of Brent Liberal Democrats) is rather odd.

A proposal to the 2011 Council budget meeting to delay all library closures by six months, whilst waiting to see if any funding would magically arrive.

A proposal presented to the 2011 Executive to surround Barham Park with advertising hoardings to pay for a continuing library.  This would probably have violated planning permission, the duties of the Barham Park charity, economic sense and many peoples' aesthetic sense.

A proposal at the 2012 Council budget to re-open six Brent libraries, supposedly at a cost of £600k, more than he proposes now.  I have suggested before his £600k proposals did not add up.  He then appeared to change the proposals part way through the meeting, which does not inspire confidence.

One is left with the impression that he is just leading people up the garden path again, as he has often done before.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Simon Hughes Hypocrisy

A brief addition on the hypocrisy of Simon Hughes MP I posted on a few days ago  He seems to have opposed free school meals in Southwark.  Free school meals have become one of the ways that Nick Clegg is trying to distinguish the Liberal Democrats from the Tories who control them.

More Universal Credit Failure

Universal Credit is still staggering on from failure to failure, with ministers now infighting over who gets the blame.  I note that Iain Duncan Smith is now looking for new (no doubt very expensive) consultants to sort out the mess.  His past record of blaming civil servants for the debacle will probably make it harder to get new people at an affordable price, since there is an obvious political risk that he will try to damage any new consultant in the same way.

His best bet would be to come clean about past failures and try to organise a cross party approach.  He seems to be simply too stubborn to make such an admission however.

Class War

Somebody questioned my reference to class war of a week ago. Whereas the rhetoric around class solidarity tends to come from the left and is often informed by a Marxist view of a shared mode of production, the closest class solidarity does seem to be of aristocrats and royalty.

Even just sticking to examples of shipwrecks, one can see examples of such class solidarity.  According to the Amanda Foreman book I read a couple of weeks ago, the officer of the CSS Alabama arranged for themselves to be disembarked on board a yacht bound for England in her final action, leaving the ordinary sailors to drown.  The most striking example I can think of is a letter from Napoleon to Tsar Alexander after the burning of Moscow in which he declared "I made war on you without any hostile feeling."  When I first read that I thought the Tsar would probably consider Napoleon something of a parvenu, although as he was himself descended from the relatively modest lineage of Catherine the Great, perhaps not.  I suppose the system of parole common up to the American Civil War and the systems of ransoms familiar in the Middle Ages, would have been far harder without this class solidarity.

There are exceptions, but as far as I can see these come from people in radically different cultures.  Valerian was famously said to have been treated as a human footstool by the Persian Emperor before being stuffed and mounted after execution.  Edward Gibbon doubted the veracity of this account precisely because he thought no monarch would treat another so.  The Mongols are said to have ridden there horses over the dead body of the ruler of Baghdad after captured the City, and Tamerlane is said to have carried a captured Ottoman Emperor in an iron cage on the back of a camel.  However, these are all examples of aristocrats from radically different cultures, which might be likely to diminish their sense of solidarity.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Free School Secrecy

The Guardian has been finding it hard to prise pretty basic information out of Michael Gove about free schools.  This shouldn't come as a surprise given his previous record of systematic attempts to conceal his correspondence.  The full story behind Michael Gove's sustained efforts at concealment on this issue has been usefully collated on the Liberal Conspiracy Blog

The first question it seems to raise is what exactly is Michael Gove so keen to conceal?  He and his advisers appear to have fought FoI requests every inch of the way, set up private email accounts and made a point of not putting things in writing.  These are not behaviours one associates with everything being completely above board.

Since vast amounts of public money are being committed, the rest of us have every right to be reassured that decisions are being made properly. 

Planning Against the Harlesden Incinerator

Next Monday's Executive is considering the draft West London Waste Plan, which is a joint plan by the various planning authorities of West London to regulate where waste sites go.  These documents always take ages to process.  I recall attending meetings on it in 2010.  This may all seem dry as dust, but it is of considerable importance for the Harlesden Incinerator issue.

This because the closer the draft plan gets to being passed, the more effective it becomes as a planning objection to waste management on sites not covered in it.  The Harlesden Incinerator site is not listed in the report.

The proposed draft also strengthens the wording resisting waste sites because of their cumulative impact.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Art of Science

I returned The Art of Science by Richard Hamblyn to Wembley Library on Tuesday.  It is the kind of serendipitous find that I would borrow from a library but probably give a miss in a bookshop.  The reason being I suppose that there are lots of books that look similar and the books that claim to do something similar and the author is not as well known (to me) as say Richard Dawkins.  However, I thought the Hamblyn anthology of science writing was much better than Dawkins' effort in the same genre.  It is an example of how libraries might perform a showrooming function in future.

Ebooks and Reading

The New York Times has a brief piece on how ebooks allow reading habits to be tracked.  That example might seem quite benign, although I do wonder how much I or anyone else can rely on their claims of anonymity.  However, it is not too hard to imagine this kind of technology being used by totalitarian regimes to effectively track how people think in a very 1984 way.  Indeed it would not surprise me if GCHQ and Barack Obama's NSA do precisely that now, possibly retrospectively with all the "metadata" they have collected.

Immanuel Kant argued that even the most totalitarian regime could not look inside your head.  Those days seem to be at an end.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Tricycle Theatre Recycling

There is a Tricycle Theatre recycling initiative from now until the 9 January.  More detail here. It is sponsored by the West London Waste Authority (WLWA).

Ghost Stories and Modernity

The Christmas season is more or less over, and with it the traditional time for ghost stories.  As a long time fan of the genre, I have often enjoyed MR James and the other classics, but I wonder why these stories have become so identified with the Victorian period?

Their original popularity may have been linked to the expansion of the periodical and book trade at that time, but why do traditional type ghost stories tend not to appear after the 1930s?  The best known examples of the genre _ the Signalman, The Red Room, The Monkey's Paw, some of the works of Algernon Blackwood, the stories of Sheridan Le Fanu, Carnacki the Ghost-Finder _ are all firmly pre war.  MR James is arguably fairly late in the tradition, dying in 1936.

It is not because the stories do not have appeal as both the BBC's 1970s adaptations and the subsequent post 2005 revival indicate.  There continue to be fan sites.

However, there have been very few classic ghost stories written since 1945.  Kingsley Amis' The Green Man is the only memorable post 1945 ghost story I can think of with a completely contemporary setting.  I suppose I should mention Robertson Davies excellent High Spirits collection, but those are more intended as Jeu d'esprit rather than intended to scare.  Susan Hill's The Woman in Black is certainly very good, but noticeably old fashioned.  It even features a horse and trap, which I would have thought would have been quite uncommon by the time of its 1930s setting.

This is quite contrary to the advice given by James himself, who thought that good ghost stories should be as contemporary as possible.  He advised using references to every modern device to make the reader think "This could happen to me".  Yet the only story I can think of with any modern devices is a 1930s EF Benson story that revolves around the use of a telephone.  I wonder why that should be?

Local Welfare Schemes Under Threat

The government has announced it is considering abolishing local welfare scheme funding.  The beneficiaries of such schemes are generally the poorest of the poor, sometimes the victims of domestic violence.

These schemes have already been cut back.  The government slashed funding for this kind of thing, when it decided to abolish the national scheme and force each local authority to create its own.  Inevitably, less money meant tougher eligibility.  Now it looks as if there might be no funding for this at all, which will drive people into the arms of loan sharks, a grim prospect.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Wembley Market Square and Brent Civic Centre Approach

Before Christmas, I posted on how the area around the Civic Centre was shaping up.  This is also now true physically.  The area now has a minilith on Olympic Way to help signpost people:

Brent Civic Centre can now be accessed more directly from Olympic Way using a new footpath:

The footpath opens out on to a market square in front of Wembley Library:

The market square should be capable of being used for a number of commercial events, which should help increase the footfall in the library. Effectively, the market square is another example of co-location.

The market square is also served by a small amount of short stay parking to the side:

As you can see, the work was not quite complete when I took these photos a few days ago, but when it is finished, the Civic Centre will finally have an appropriate setting on this side of the building.

Eric Pickles Bins Bible Withdrawn

On Boxing Day, Eric Pickles published a so called "bins bible" advocating weekly collections and making his usual smears of local government.  I didn't remark on it, as I knew it was rubbish.  He has now been forced to withdraw it, presumably because of its numerous inaccuracies.

However, he didn't send out an explicit withdrawal or notify media organisations that it was being revised. He just quietly dropped it, so the page is now blank. Reputable organisations such as the New York Times publish corrections when they print errors.  Members of this government, such as Iain Duncan Smith, Grant Shapps and Eric Pickles seem to publish statements with no regard for whether they are true or false.

Despite his track record of flagrant dishonesty, Eric Pickles is now demanding that he be given dictatorial levels of control over local government publicity.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Catch Up with Liberal Democrat Hypocrisy

A quick catch up with Simon Hughes MP lists some of his hypocrisy over the years.  Of course he is not the only Liberal Democrat to have been dishonest.

Cllr Lorber Complaint to be Heard

The report resulting from my complaint about Cllr Paul Lorber is due to be discussed by the Standards Committee on 9 January.  The meeting will be held in public.  Cllr Lorber undoubtedly has a whole raft of conflicts of interest and has used his position as a councillor to further them in a way that I consider to be wholly wrong.

What I think most people will find surprising though is the sheer rudeness with which he tried to bully ACAVA into handing him some sort of sub-letting. 


The comment below certainly gives a spin on the subject.  I have included a link to the committee report above.  It is a general axiom that primary sources tend to bring you closer to the truth than secondary ones.  Anyone who reads the actual report can make their own judgement as to whether Cllr Lorber behaved rudely and has a series of conflicts of interest.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Praise for Brent Allotments and Food Growing Service

Brent allotments and food growing service has had a well deserved dollop of praise from of all people Martin Francis.  What Martin either doesn't realise, or fails to mention, is that the progress of the last three years was made by the change of leadership from the previous Tory/Liberal Democrat administration in Brent Council to the Labour one.

Back when Labour were in opposition, allotments were essentially ignored.  The waiting lists got longer and longer, and the service just drifted along.  As a result of this, the Labour Party decided this would need to be addressed if we formed an administration.  We therefore had an extensive data gathering process and consultation resulting in the first comprehensive strategy on Brent allotments since goodness knows when.

As usual, Martin had a hostile take on this effort at the time.

This shouldn't be the end of the matter, as food growing should be well placed to slot in with the Council's new responsibilities for public health.  In other words, we should continue to examine this area and make changes as the Council and Society at large continues to change, rather than just assuming that all change is automatically bad.  It also illustrates that if you want to make positive changes, you often have to stick with it for a while before you start to see results.

I guess the final message I would take from all this is the importance of political choice, which appears to be denied by Martin Francis in his comment on a recent blog of mine.  As I understand it, the allotments was badly run down in the 1990s.  There was no allotments officer and no funding.  Whatever sites there were were, whenever possible, sold.  That was a choice by the then Tory administration under Bob Blackman.  The Labour administration came in as a minority in 1996, and then with a majority from 1998.  As part of Paul Daisley's drive for a value for money Council the allotments service had a consultation to determine priorities, appointed an allotments officer to manage the service, and put in capital investment from time to time to deliver improvements.  Again that was a choice by a Labour administration that another administration might not have made.  Paul Lorber's administration came to power in 2006, and chose to drift on this and other issues.  Again, that was a choice.  When I became Lead Member in 2010, Labour had decided to sort out this drifting service.  Again, we could have ignored it and let things drift, but we chose to make things happen.  The changes that Martin now welcomes are the result of a Labour Council deciding to devote attention to a public service because we believe in public services in a way the Tories and Liberal Democrats do not.


Responding to the comment, I just believe in accountability. You can see that in my recent comments on (for example) Eric Pickles, Iain Duncan Smith, Cllr Paul Lorber and others.  It is perfectly reasonable to ask whether what people say today is compatible with what they said previously.  I have  never complained about myself or anyone else in the Labour Party being held to these standards.  Why shouldn't they apply to other parties or campaign groups?

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Looking Forward

Today one traditionally looks forward, so I thought I would take the opportunity to look at some of the bigger themes that are likely to shape political debate.

Threats to Democracy: Decay of Debate
Thanks to the CIA, the quote generally attributed to Thomas Jefferson "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance" is well known.  Yet it would be in a more Jeffersonian spirit to apply it not to foreign invasion but to internal corruption of democracy.

This seems to me to be a growing problem.  Access to information appears to be exploding, but critical thinking about it appears to be diminishing.  over and over again, I have been struck that there are basic misunderstandings of how things work, twisted use of data and sometimes a simple refusal to consider unpalatable facts.  This is no doubt linked to the way in which the Internet and the proliferating media encourage everyone to consult information sources that echo their own views rather than give a true account.  I am sure it is also linked to the decay of scrutiny by the media for cost reasons, but it is also a decision by the people absorbing the (mis)information that potentially undermines good decision making and could lead to enormous harm.

More Threats to Democracy
A second kind of threat to our democracy is a growing tendency to consumerism.  Relations are seen as more transactional, rather than based around group loyalty.  People are less likely to see public bodies as delivering an overall good and more interested in what it gives them personally.

This makes the traditional models of service delivery more and more difficult as small numbers of people have traditionally been granted disproportionate resources.  For instance a child with severe special needs could consume as much as £100k per year.  A child in a mainstream school without special needs might be educated for several thousand pounds a year.

This also impacts on the public spending cuts.  The statutory services such as adult social services use a vast resource for a relatively small number of people.  Universal services such as parks or pavements are used by almost everyone, but have a relatively low level of resource.  As adult social services suck up a greater and greater proportion of budgets, people will will increasingly question why the universal services that they actually use seem so underresourced, and whether they are getting their money's worth.  The kind of social compact that Oliver Wendell Holmes referred to when he said "Taxation is the price we pay for living in a civilised society" is becoming less accepted.

There is a related problem in that many people simply do not understand how public services are paid for.  Brent's recent budget consultation, many of the consultees were surprised to find that Council Tax paid for only a small proportion of Council services.  That is line with my experience over many years.

Demographic Change
We have an aging population, which is driving changing demands on all areas of public life.  The growing needs of health and adult social services are well known and underlie much of the "graph of doom" argument.

There is an interesting take here.   The writer argues it is a global trend that cannot be solved by a higher birth rate or by immigration.  There is simply no precedent for the proportion of older people that will be around by 2050.

Growth in Computing Power
Moore's Law says that computing power doubles roughly every eighteen months/two years.  This has held true since the observation was first made in the 1960s.  It presumably means that electronic devices will become ever more common and cheap, which would have implications for their use in libraries for example.

As well as an increase in "brute force" calculating power, computers are beginning to be capable of doing intelligent work better than human beings, for instance driving cars,writing legal documents and so on.

This could make people economically obsolete.  Simply sticking to a model where peoples' labour earns money in this context would be impossible as the people would earn less than the machines.  Not paying people anything would destroy consumption levels and cause economic collapse.  Some people think the answer to this query is a basic income as proposed in Switzerland.  It would not solve the lack of purpose that Keynes foresaw in his famous essay.

Climate Change
One of the biggest changes over future years will come through climate change.  I have compared this to the end of the last Ice Age.   That sounds like hyperbole, but it is literally the closest comparison I can think of.  We will have to cope with rising sea levels, huge changes in the natural world  and enormous social disruption.