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Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Possible Legal Challenge on Housing

Red Brick Blog has some fairly dire warnings about social housing waiting lists in London.  Amazingly, I see that Brent is not as harsh as I assumed.  The ten year test of residency in Barking and Dagenham seems likely to open that Borough to a highly credible challenge on indirect discrimation grounds.

Local Accountability in Schools

The Labour Party wants to restore local accountability to schools, including the ability to open community schools.  This is all to the good.  Whereas growing independence for schools may have been the right move in the days of LMS, it has now reached a point of disintegration, with the only oversight provided by civil servants in Whitehall.  Whitehall simply hasn't the ability to monitor individual schools all over the country.  Some sort of "middle tier" is inevitable unless school standards are going to be subject no accountability whatever.  It is a shame that policy makers in Whitehall have taken so long to realise this.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Wembley Library Story Telling

A photo I took yesterday at one of the CityReadLondon story telling events (This one in Wembley Library).  Events like these, or indeed all the events commemorating the British Empire Exhibition, would have been far less frequent without the Libraries Transformation Project.

Extreme Conservatism of the Loony Left

I often wonder why it is that those who consider themselves to be left wing are in reality frequently bitterly resistant to change.  This is something of a paradox, as in principle such people are dedicated to the utter transformation of society, but in practice they are doggedly resistant to even slight changes in the ways things are done.  I wonder why that should be?

Monday, 28 April 2014

Paradoxes of Debate

My post yesterday referred to a comment on a libraries post.  I have now deleted the comment because (presumably because the author was so enraged) it did not make sense.

However, it did refer to a belief that is widespread among Library campaigners in Brent, but which does not, in my view, accord with the facts.  They repeatedly state that no one agrees with the policy.

The commentator in question stated that no one in the Labour Group agreed with the policy.  The sheer implausibility of this always strikes me.  The libraries policy voted through in April 2011 remains in place, and no paper has ever been presented to change it.  If most people disagree with the policy why would that be?

Taking it another way, it is alleged that I alone forced through a policy against the wishes of the other 40 members of the Labour Group.  How did I manage to outvote the other forty?  It would be a useful trick if one knew how to do it.  In fact, I have never once been challenged by any member of the Executive on the Libraries policy.  The Labour Group has discussed it more often than any other policy, and it is fair to say that individuals have from time to time expressed disquiet on particular aspects, but no one ever seriously challenged.  In terms of votes at Full Council or various Executive meetings, the matter has been put to the vote time and time again.  No member of the Labour Group has ever voted against it.

Why therefore, do some people seem to think there is widespread opposition to the Libraries policy in the Labour Group?

I think the answer is twofold.  Firstly, as I explained yesterday, some campaigners are so passionately attached to their view that they simply cannot acknowledge contrary facts.  Hence the continuing conviction that Brent libraries have somehow failed when in fact Brent bucks the national trend.  Secondly, I am sorry to say that some people in the Labour Party agree to things in party meetings, but then go out and say something quite different elsewhere.  What continues to surprise me is that some of the people they speak to  continue to accept such people's statements at face value when they are obviously false.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

New Powers to Limit Betting Shops

It looks like Councils will finally get powers to stop clusters of betting shops.  This is an issue that has been bubbling along for some time.  I am glad that changes are finally in sight, although it seems to involve a bit of a change of heart by the Tories and Liberal Democrats.


It looks like the betting industry will fight these measures as hard as they can, which given the amount of money they make, is not surprising.

Comments and Democratic Debate

I had a comment to this post that illustrates some of the peculiarities of comments on blogs.  The (as usual) anonymous has a typically aggressive and uncompromising tone.

Firstly, it complains that I am blogging at all.  Well no one forces you to read what I write. If you don't want to that is fine.  I was interested in local government and politics long before I became a councillor, so it would be odd if that interest were suddenly cease once I cease to be a councillor.

I think what the commentator really finds difficult is knowing some one else disagrees with him.  This is not confined to the Library debate. A still more striking example can be found in the comment trail to my post on the Willesden Town Green proposal.  Some of the comments seem to regard any disagreement with their own views as an "insult".  If you are really never able to disagree with someone because of a supposed insult, it is hard to see how anyone can debate the merits of an issue.

A related problem is a tendency to ignore inconvenient facts.  I get the impression that the commentator on my library post simply can't bring himself to accept that Brent library usage has gone up because it contradicts his deeply felt prejudices.  I am reminded of a twitter exchange I had with Liberal Democrat councillor Alison Hopkins a while ago, where she ended up denouncing "cold statistics" in a way that seemed to me tantamount to saying "If my opinions are contradicted by the facts; I ignore the facts."

Ignoring the facts and trying to shout down people who say things you don't like does not seem to be a good way to design policy.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

The Future which Doesn't Work

There are often complaints about the restrictions on car use that Brent's planning and transport policies impose.  A recent TfL study again underlines why these are necessary.  Unrestricted car use will endlessly increase until there is permanent gridlock.

The measures to encourage other kinds of transport, rather than being anti-car as commonly perceived, are the only way to keep traffic moving in urban areas.  There is nothing "pro car" about sitting in a succession of traffic jams.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Change in Brent Libraries

One of the frustrating things about explaining Brent Libraries Strategy is that many people think that the library service basically stays the same.  It is a bit like education in that people hark back to the way libraries were when they were children, and treat that as an ideal from which they must never deviate.

In fact, even in the three years since, we embarked on the Libraries Transformation Project, Brent libraries have changed out of recognition.  I have already blogged on the overall rise in numbers, the growth of the home library service and the outreach service.  One could also mention changing IT use in either its technological or social aspects.

One way of seeing how dramatic the changes can be is to look at the changes in visits to each library.  Here are the 2011/2012 figures:

You can see that Willesden is by far the biggest, with almost three times as many visits as "Wembley" (which is of course the old Brent Town Hall Library, not the new Wembley Library in Brent Civic Centre).  Many people are also surprised that the six libraries that we closed only accounted for 12.6% of the total visits.

The next year, overall visits went up slightly, and the split looked like this:


Kilburn Library is noticeably bigger following its refurbishment, and all six libraries have grown somewhat.  Again, Willesden is by far the biggest.   The following year, the picture changes dramatically:

Willesden has shrunk dramatically as the rebuild started.  Even so, even the interim service manages to be Brent's second biggest library.  However, the new Wembley Library has seen usage explode

This gives some idea of how artificial it is to pick one particular year.  The situation is changing so rapidly that the 2012/2013 data is dramatically out of date.  During 2014/2015, I expect the numbers to go up again as the full year effect of the new Wembley Library feeds in.  The year after that, 2015/2016, should see yet more growth as the new Willesden Library Centre will then be open.

I find all this much more inspiring than the gentle decline that we had before. 


The absolute figures are here.


A comment asks for library by library issues for each library for 2013/14.  Visits by each library are the percentages for that year given above. The total figure as given here is 1,654,807.  There is obviously a similar break down for 2013/14 for issues, with the total figure being 996,890, but the whole argument I am making is  that selecting one particular year is artificial.  Wembley is virtually certain to go up this year.  Willesden will go up once it reopens in 2015.  Year by year figures tell you little.  It is also the case that many Brent library loans occur outside the buildings altogether.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Dumping in Harlesden Town Centre

Going through Harlesden Town Centre the other day, I was struck at how untidy it still looks.  There is evidently still a lot of trade waste dumping despite the reorganisation of the trade waste enforcement team in April last year.  Now that we have the new Public Realm Contract, we should be able to introduce time banded collections, although I suspect that this will not be until the road works are finished.  Even then it will not happen overnight, but need persistence and, of course, the support of the traders themselves.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Furness Primary School Playground

I just thought I would do a quick post on how welcome the changes to Furness School playground are.  It is so much better than the old dull tarmac.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Housing and Planning Applications

I have picked up a sense of confusion in some recent planning discussions around what a planning authority can demand in terms of housing in a planning application.

The first confusion is around market, affordable and social housing.  Market housing is easiest.  That is just housijng sold at the market price.  Generally, that is where a developer makes the main profit that funds the project.  The real confusion comes with affordable housing.  This means housing rented at 80% of market rate.  In London that can easily be seriously unaffordable for many people.  Social housing  is more genuinely affordable, but seems to be being steadily eroded not just in planning conditions but also through the Right to Buy.

Tenure Mix
Two more things to look out for are whether the properties are sold or rented.  If sold, they can sometimes by subject to shared ownership or other concessionary schemes.  It is also worth looking at the mix of sizes.  A viable community should have some family and some smaller accommodation.  However, the market currently favours one or two bedroom flats over family accommodation.  Brent therefore tries to push developers to include more family accommodation. 

The third area where people seem to misunderstand is the nature of a planning authority's powers.  Brent cannot simply demand whatever it wants.  it has to be able to demonstrate that its decisions are in line with various planning policy documents (or deviate from them for a good reason), and that its demands are reasonable and proportionate.  Developers generally try to reduce the proportion of non-market housing by pleading poverty.  In recent times, the Council has started putting in a clawback position in cases where the developer subsequently stands to make a killing. 

Frequently, the Council is seeking to trade off one benefit against another.  Thus the Willesden Library development was judged justified in not having non market housing because the developer was paying for a new cultural centre, for example.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Local Welfare Assistance

The Guardian has a good piece on the facts around local welfare assistance.  What is does not bring out is the extent to which Councils are constrained by central government policy.  Not only did central government simply shunt the responsibility on to Councils with a significant reduction in funding, it did so with very little notice.  It is also inherently harder for local authorities to give out loans since (unlike the DWP) they cannot dock benefits.  That means that they cannot recover past assistance and roll it over into next year in the way the DWP could.  Hence there is even less funding in the system, even ignoring the 10% cut.

There is also every prospect of the entire funding being cut from 2015, which would leave Councils cutting services even further to carry on the payments, or simply stop the scheme altogether.  In turn this makes Councils reluctant to publicise the system since it may not exist soon.

The whole policy is one designed to fail, but with the blame transferred away from central government.  As such it is one of Iain Duncan Smith's most cynical manoeuvres.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

David Cameron Looking Both Ways

I see that David Cameron is now being called on to make good on his claims about the UK being a "Christian country".  His presumably Lynton Crosby inspired dog whistle to Christian groups appears to be running up against his previous attempts to appeal to gays.  I wonder which will win out?

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Brent Library Outreach Services

One part of Brent's library services that does not get properly appreciated is the outreach service.  This tends to get dismissed as a "bookswop" but I think it can have a much more valuable role.  Since we bwent ahead with our new library system in 2011, Brent Libraries have seen a massive increase in library services.

The graph shows an increase of more than 600% between 2011 and the end of 2014, an even bigger growth than with home library services.  The number of outreach loans is actually greater than the total number of loans from Harlesden Library

What i9s more interesting is the number of ways, the outreach service can reach parts of the Borough that are less accessible to the physical libraries:

  • Outreach arrangements can be made with areas that have never been near a physical library.  An example would be the Children Centre in St Raphaels in Stonebridge.  For those who don't know it, the St Raphaels estate scores very badly on most measures of deprivation, and is somewhat physically isolated for people without a car.  Putting a library outreach service in the middle of it helps Brent Library Service access an area where they have been largely absent.  
  • Outreach arrangements can provide temporary cover during building work, as was successfully done during the Kilburn Library refurbishment.
  • Outreach can also be used to reach audiences previously untouched.  For example, it has been used in coffee shops, hostels and even Northwick Park hospital.
  • Outreach can also be used to respond to shifts in population.  The likely growth in Alperton, for instance, could be serviced in this way.  When Brent's first libraries were founded in the 1890s, much of the Borough was fields and transport and technology were entirely different.
Outreach certainly cannot replace physical libraries, but what it can contribute is often overlooked. 

Friday, 18 April 2014

Stop and Search In Brent

A few days ago I was sent some figures on stop and search in Brent.  They show a disproportionate number of black people are being stopped.


 These figures cover from February 2013 to February 2014.  The proportions are similar for arrests following a stop and search.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Universal Credit and Public Libraries

There is an interesting report here about the possible impact of Universal Credit on Public Libraries and IT facilities.  I posted on IT use in Brent libraries before, but I focused on technological changes. It is useful to be reminded of the other pressures on IT use.

The Lorenbergs paper essentially argues that libraries will see increasing usage of IT facilities in libraries as a result of benefit changes, which seems plausible.  In Brent, the welfare advisers  seen in the BBC Panorama programme are located immediately by Wembley Library.  I am told that they are seeing increasing demand for the self service IT facilities even now, and that they expect the same in the Willesden Green Library Centre when it opens.  It may well be that some of the library PCs come to be used as overspill.

This raises a number of interesting issues.  One of which is whether there is any legal duty for libraries to provide IT.   I think there is, but that opinion is based on my own exegesis of paragraph 116 of the Ouseley  judgement.  The conventional wisdom is that there is no legal duty to provide IT in libraries.  If that vis accepted, then doing away with IT facilities may well be part of the hollowing out that I have argued is the only plausible alternative to building closures.

Of course, this can be done more inconspicuously than literally removing the PCs.  Not upgrading the software or the broadband connection might achieve the same result more insidiously.  Similarly refusing to invest in new technologies such as ipads will slowly erode IT provision without attracting much public controversy.  I suspect these options may be taken up by authorities as budgets tighten still further.

I suspect that Iain Duncan Smith's department has embarked on its Universal Credit programme without giving such things much thought.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

CPZ Permits and Car Clubs

Speaking to a Kensal Green resident recently, I was delighted to learn that she had taken advantage of the option to give up the CPZ permit that we introduced when we converted CPZs to emission based bands.  When the ability to give up CPZ permits was suggested, I was quite skeptical as to whether anyone would take it.  She is now using a car club membership, although she said that even there her usage was limited.  Shifting people away from cars is crucial to improving London's air quality.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Brent Home Library Services Up

During the debate about Brent's Library Transformation, one of the major concerns many people had was access for disabled people, although these feelings are not universal.  In all the Labour Party debates I take part in about how to respond to the Lib Dem/Tory cuts, it was generally agreed that protecting the most vulnerable is a key priority.

Of course, this doesn't get you much credit politically.  None of the housebound users of this service will be marching to the Town Hall in protest, because they are not capable of marching anywhere.  It is also true that the cost per user is probably higher than for library users in general.  However, I think that a civilised society distributes resources according to need rather than according to whoever can shout the loudest.

It is also worth mentioning that providing services to the disabled involves more than just the Home Library service.  It includes making sure all our libraries are properly disabled accessible, that at least some of the PCs have disability software and that there is a reasonable range of titles that people can access.  The improvement of the online offer is also important.

However, for people who are so severely disabled that they are housebound, the home library service is a vital link.  It also is an example of Brent using volunteers (which people complain we are against) as it involves volunteers driving round and bringing the books to people who cannot travel to the library themselves.  You can get an idea of the scope of the service via this link (including a short video).

That shows an increase of 401% since we decided to go ahead with the transformation in 2011.