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Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Retail Technology in Public Libraries

Some interesting ideas on how libraries could be changed by retail technology can be found here.  This is already commonly used by retailers. 

In a Brent context, one can see it being used to best advantage in a co-located library such as Wembley or Willesden.  For instance instead of queuing at the One Stop Shop above Wembley Library, people might wait in the Library and be alerted when their appointment came about upstairs.  It also shows that the trope one so often finds in newspaper articles of relying on childhood memories of how libraries used to work is inadequate.  Like any other living services public libraries are (and have to) develop as technology and society changes.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Further Wembley Update

It is a while since I last updated on the Civic Centre and the surrounding Wembley area.  Progress is now well established towards achieving a Wembley that does more than simply revolve around Wembley Stadium, welcome though that facility is.

Most recently a plan for a new theatre a little to the north of the Civic Centre has been announced.  I am not sure where the mooted Travelodge is intended to be sited, but it sounds like it could add to the Wembley mix in a good way.  I also see that the Police are opening a contact point in the London Designer Outlet, which surprises me as it is not that far from their base on Rutherford Way.  To reiterate a point I have made before, having a good mix of uses in the area will help avoid the problem we had with the old Stadium of a huge amount of activity on a football match day followed by nothing at other times.  These other attractions _ including the housing, shops, Wembley Library and the Civic Centre itself _ will help keep a steady flow of activity in the area.

It also looks as if more of the Civic Centre will be rented out, on top of the existing agreement with Air France, as the Council workforce shrinks.  Whereas this is a melancholy reflection on the downgrading of local government, it does reflect an even stronger financial case for the Civic Centre than argued previously.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Christmas Leftover Tips

Some seasonal leftover tips from West London Waste can be found here.  Food waste still accounts for an extraordinary proportion of landfill waste in West London (about a third).  Lets cut that as much as possible.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Thatcher's Incomprehension

Recent archive releases show once again Margaret Thatcher's blank incomprehension of parts of the UK outside Middle England.  It actually rather suits separatists like the Sinn Fein in those days or the SNP now to have governments in London that don't understand anywhere else.  That is  why I don't believe the SNP's claims that they don't want a Tory government.  They would actually much prefer a Tory government to a Labour one.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

British Museum and the Head of Augustus

I recently attended the small British Museum exhibition on the Meroe Head of Augustus.  It is not very big, taking up the Asahi Shimbun Displays room just to the right of the main entrance, but it is fascinating for two reasons.

Firstly, it is a rare example of ancient sculpture that retains the extremely realistic eyes of the original.  Ancient sculpture was commonly painted, but almost always this decoration has worn off, giving us moderns a very different vision to what the original audience must have seen.  The head of Meroe has been preserved.

Secondly, it is a reminder of how politicised these statues could be.  Augustus sent this sort of stock image all over the Empire, as a reminder of how important he was.  The Africans who hacked it off buried it under the entrance of a building so that they could ritually walk over the might of Rome on a regular basis.  The exhibition runs to 15 February.

Bronze head from a statue of the Roman emperor Augustus

Friday, 26 December 2014

Antarctic Consolations

At this time of year I usually recommend a couple of books I have been reading.  Recently I have been reading Chris Turney's 1912, which I recommend.  This is not just because it makes you feel a lot warmer when you are feeling cold in a British winter to reader of Amundsen and his ilk struggling in
Antarctica.  It is also a cheering look at how far human knowledge has expanded in only just over one hundred years, what people can achieve in the face of appalling odds and an impressive combination of historical narrative with some scientific explanation that generally gets entirely ignored in accounts of Antarctic exploration. No doubt Chris Turney's status as an earth scientist himself is crucial to this.

It also has some sidelights on the politics of these expeditions.  I had no idea that much of the impetus on Antarctic expeditions cam from a need move the RGS on from controversy over admitting female fellows.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Seeking Savings in Brent Council Human Resources

Among the savings in the Brent Council budget papers for tomorrow's Executive are some in Human Resources.  I have argued before that this is an area where savings could be made, but I can't say that I have much confidenc3e that the present management are best left to themselves to make them.  Left to themselves they will be, as the elected councillors have no scrutiny mechanism, and the Executive members seem to show no interest.

There are multiple aspects.  The one that has attracted most attention is the finding against the Council for racist bullying.  I want to look at that in a different way.  It is admitted that Brent Council has seen burgeoning use of interim staff.  When I raised this with the councillor supposedly in charge, he assured me that this was all under control, and that it would be limited by not signing off on interim staff.  This seemed to me to rather miss the point.

The point is why does the Council seem to have a demand for interim staff?  Is it a recruitment problem?  That sounds odd given that local government cuts should have created a pool of qualified people looking for jobs.  Why shouldn't these people be filling jobs at Brent Council?  If, as is sometimes suggested, the Council has acquired a reputation where bullying and intimidation are tolerated, that might explain why it is difficult to get people to work for it.  Alternatively, perhaps morale is low for a number of reasons, and this can lead to staff absence.  Bullying and intimidation could be among these.  It may be that a climate of fear has been created.  Alternatively, perhaps previous restructures have been botched, and people are being overworked.  Either, or both, are possible.  One further aspect is the One Oracle project, which should now be providing data on where there are potential savings. 

Whatever the answer, it is difficult to have much confidence in the current management at Human Resources to sort these problems out.  It is a subject crying out for a genuine, independent review.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Value for Money and the Greens

Martin Francis has reacted with dismay to the various spending cuts mooted in Brent's latest budget consultation.  However improbable it might seem, it appears that he did not realise that some such list was inevitable given the sheer scale (£50 million plus) of the spending cuts imposed by the current Con/Lib Dem government.

I am never quite sure how far he just can't get his head round things or how far it is part of his party's long avowed strategy to damage the Labour Party.  Certainly, in practice he always seems to be attacking the Labour Party and/or Brent Council rather than the Tories.  It also seems to result in  a series of attacks on any kind of change, including positive changes like Brent Civic Centre that improve services whilst saving money.  Indeed I am not sure that Martin actually recognises that you can improve outcomes whilst spending less at all.  I think he effectively thinks that more public spending is always good regardless of value.

It is also possible that this is all a cunning plan, based on a modern version of revolutionary defeatism.  This would suggest the destruction of the Labour Party as a prelude to a Leftie utopia, although I think it more likely to result in permanent Tory rule.  Either way, those in the Labour Party who think they can do a deal with people whose aim and/or instinct is simply to attack the Labour Party are on a hiding to nothing.  

Monday, 22 December 2014

Public Health Budget Options

One of the more surprising aspects of the budget proposals published earlier this month, is the very general way public health is treated.  The total budget is listed as £18,848, but there is no systematic review of how this money is being used.  Given that this has transferred to the Council recently, it strikes me as a core area for the Council to examine.  It would be very surprising if there are no opportunities for synergies.  If Brent had a functioning scrutiny system, I would think this would a number one target.  I find it extraordinary that it is not.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Brent Council Lettings Agency

I have been doing a series of posts on Brent Council's budget options since they were published a couple of weeks ago.  Compared to previous years, these are being considered late in the year.  Overall, I have suggested that the Council needs to be seen as acting in a very difficult context. 

Nonetheless, a theme I keep coming across is that I am not sure how achievable these savings are.

In particular, I look at the proposed income from the Lettings Agency, and I wonder whether it will ever happen.  The two sides for income generation appear to be fines and control of demand.

Fines are inherently hard to predict.  We don't know how many bad landlords are out there.  Or how easy it will be to get hold of them and make them pay up.  For example, I recall one landlord that managed a property through a brass plate company that was virtually impossible to contact.  Actually getting a fine paid from such a company might be very hard, and require a certain resource to achieve.

Controlling demand in an area with such a transient population is also hard to predict.  The theory is that early intervention and gate keeping can do the work.  Early intervention may not help if people move in and out a lot.  Gatekeeping can be hard if there are hard luck cases out there (which there always are, especially in housing).

I really wonder if the difficulties of this kind have been fully thought through.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Brent Council Relying on Iain Duncan Smith

A common theme I have identified in Brent's budget options is that many of them appear to be very hard to deliver.  Nowhere is this more true than in the proposed changes around benefit processing. 

This assumes that, under the inspired leadership of Iain Duncan Smith, we can all rely universal credit going forward as planned.  Given that everyone apart from the minister thinks universal credit is going to be a disaster, this does not inspire me with confidence.  Nonetheless, Brent proposes reducing capacity on the assumption that switching people to electronic claiming will work and happen on time.  This despite the fact that so far nothing of the kind has happened

It further worries me that Council reserves are earmarked specifically in advance.  Effectively, that means they are not really reserves, but allocated resources for specific spending.  In other words, the level of reserves is being cut for an entirely predictable one off expenditure.  That is a misuse of reserves

Friday, 19 December 2014

Half Measures in Kilburn

In Kilburn High Road recently, I noticed that part of the Brent part of the street appears to have some rather miserable Christmas decorations attached.  I wonder why that is, as Brent Council to cancel such arrangements back in 2011.  Wherever the money has come from has seen a cut in another part of the budget, and such cuts should be made in an open, transparent and accountable manner.  It also looks a bit odd that there is nothing on the Camden side.  As I have remarked before, Brent and Camden really should work together on Kilburn High Road. 

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Possible Abolition of Ward Ward Working

Hidden away in the Brent Council Budget options is the drastic reduction, or perhaps total abolition of ward working.  One of the fears I have about options such as this is that people only understand the full implications once they have been voted through, and it is too late to change them. Abolishing ward working would not only undermine the role of councillors in the community, but also social cohesion and arts funding.

It is also an example of highly visible Council activity that benefits the community as a whole, which is something coming under greater and greater threat as budgets tighten.  Essentially, the balance of spend is going increasing towards a smaller number of people with severe needs and less towards universal services that are visible to everyone.  This is importnat as it damages the credibility of local government with the public as a whole, since the public see less and less Council activity that directly impacts themselves.


For the benefit of the commentator below, many of the posts on this blog are about possible savings, and I think I have probably made more suggestions on how to make savings, and been more willing to defend them than anyone else.

The key thing is to work out what your priorities are, articulate them in a strategy, ensure that your favoured proposals will deliver them credibly and then defend them with a degree of fortitude when challenged rather than being blown off course.  Many of the problems that some councillors feel are through not sticking to such a course.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Was Susan Hill Inspired by Thomas Hardy?

I wonder whether the Susan Hill poem being used in BBC Radio3's Carol competition was originally inspired as a riposte to the Thomas Hardy poem I quoted last year. 

Council Tax Lessons from Scotland

I note one of the counter-arguments to a Council Tax rise in Brent is that the government gives a grant not to raise Council Tax which offsets most of the loss.  This is true, but to look at why it is not as simple as it seems it is worth looking north of the Border.

Scotland, under the SNP, pioneered the idea of a Council Tax freeze, and suggested it to the Tories to the South.  This was introduced in 2007-8.  As the grant has been extended for freezing each year, the cost to Holyrood has gone up with each year.  For 2015-16, it stands at £560 million, and the cumulative cost 20 £2,520 million.  In my judgement, Holyrood is likely to decide at some point that the burden is no longer affordable.  At that point, Holyrood can simply not renew the grant and leave Councils to make up the gap.  Since Councils are effectively limited to a 2% Council Tax rise by the referendum threat, that effectively means that they could only make up the gap with a further round of spending cuts equivalent to several years worth of potential Council Tax rises.

That is what I mean by Brent Council digging its own grave. 

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Cuts to Legal Services in Brent

In thinking about budget cuts, it is part of the standard shtick to talk about "frontline services".  The implication is that everyone else is presumably surplus to requirements.  I have always found this rather irritating.  One of the hidden dangers of the Budget proposals in Brent at the moment is that things like legal services can be easily downgraded without cost.  In fact, I suspect there could be real hidden costs in downgrading to be paid during the course of future procurements or judicial reviews, long after the decisions have been made.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Scottish Wildcats

I have mentioned Scottish wildcats before.  I am delighted that new money has been released to protect one of our most charismatic fauna. 

How Plausible are Brent Council Savings?

I have been looking again at some of the proposed savings in Brent Council's budget proposals, and once again wondering how plausible they are.  In some case, such Adult Social Care thyere is a lack of detail.  I mentioned before "contain demographic pressure within existing budgets" sounds fine, but how do you do it?  Lets look at some other examples:

Close a Leisure Centre.  Which one I wonder?  Willesden is part of a PFI agreement.  Vale Farm is part of the wider Ealing/Harrow contract that Brent got an award for.  Difficult to see how you can backtrack out of those.  Moberly is Westminster operated despite its Brent location so it is under Westminster's control.  That leaves Bridge Park in Stonebridge, which is subject to a clawback arrangement thanks to the grant that established it in the 1980s.  Thus, all of these appear to be subject either to long term contracts, or to a clawback that effectively operates as a poison pill to closure in a similar way to the Brent Museum.

Cease all Youth Services.  Again, this sounds difficult for legal reasons.  Closing Roundwood Youth Centre would likely mean repaying the government grant that established it. I imagine other aspects of this proposal, such as closing the Youth Parliament, would attract controversy. 

A "Partnership Model" for Childrens Centres.  This sounds reminiscent of some of the library debates.  Greater reliance on volunteers, hollowing out of the offer and (as an alternative) closing some of the centres and concentrating resources (I assume) on a smaller number of buildings.  Relying more on volunteers, is different in this sector as there are a number of established groups that follow this model, although whether there would be similar quality is questionable.  The experience of libraries is also relevant in that, in Brent, the reduction of buildings did not lead to the fall in usage which had been anticipated by some opponents.  However, I really wonder whether Brent would now have the resilience to actually push through the political controversy that would inevitably arise from this option.  There may also be another set of "poison pill" arrangements that make actual closure problematic.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Positive News on Street Lighting?

I thought I would vary my generally gloomy look at Brent Council's budget items with one that sound a bit more cheery.  One of the projects is to replace existing Brent street lighting with LEDs.  I have suggested this sort of thing before.  Previously, the cost of the new equipment has been assessed as outweighing the potential savings, but technology constantly changes and maybe the newer equipment will be more cost effective.  It would also have the effect of reducing carbon emissions, which would be a notable extra benefit.  Effective delivery of this option would be crucially dependent on the skills of Brent's procurement experts.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Brent's New Library Loyalty Card

Brent Libraries is revamping its library loyalty scheme from January.  Previously, I think it has been fair to say that this has been looked at as a way of encouraging people to use libraries.  This looks to me more like a way to encourage the use of sports centres.  A recent Libraries newsletter explains:

"From January we will be introducing a new reward scheme for Brent Library customers replacing the current loyalty card.  The new scheme will reward you with a fitness voucher each time you borrow two or more books.  The vouchers can be exchanged for a range of free or discounted sessions at Vale Farm, Willesden Sports Centre and Bridge Park Community Leisure Centre.  Examples of offers available are; a free off peak Zumba or pilates class, £2 off a swim, free off peak sauna or steam."

Brent ranks very low among London Boroughs in encouraging exercise, so it seems like a good idea.  It may also be timely as part of the Budget discussion includes the possibility of cutting back on sports development.


As I have pointed out many times, Brent libraries now have more visits and loans than when we had twelve libraries.  Evidently, people are able to reach the libraries in Brent.  Given that we are a small urban authority without probably one of the best public transport networks in the country, that is not surprising.   With regard to the sports centres, there is currently a consultation to close one, but I am doubtful how easy that would be. 

Friday, 12 December 2014

Libraries, Arts & Heritage in Brent

The proposed changes to Brent's Libraries, Arts & Heritage strike me as even odder in terms of recent announcements for the area.  To remind, the Council latest staff restructuring proposals include the idea of merging the Sports, Parks and Cemeteries post with the Libraries, Art & Heritage one.  This is predicated on the idea that libraries are being drastically cut back.

In fact, libraries seem to be getting off relatively lightly as far as the recent budget proposals are concerned.  The only stated cut is of about £100k to the book fund.  Of course, this follows a substantial upheaval with the Libraries Transformation Project, so it may well be that there is not much more to cut without a drastic change in strategy.

The oddity of the timing is that the post are proposed for deletion just as the management issues are incredibly complicated.  A new museum & archive strategy is due in January.  The new Willesden Library Centre will open in the Summer (incorporating a Museum and Archive).  The Arts team is being tapered down to concentrate on the new building in Willesden and then being abolished.  The existing commitment to the Tricycle Theatre is being wound down to nothing under these plans.  A new trust is mooted to avoid business rates, which will require someone to design a really watertight specification if (for example) the service is privatised along Ealing & Harrow lines. 

Simultaneously, there is vague talk of basing some sort of privatised library at both the former Preston Library and the former Kensal Rise Library, and who knows where else.   This would require an entirely different model of delivering library services involving people who have never delivered any library services in the past, and involves a host of legal issues, if it comes about.  There are also the obvious industrial relations problems of library staff presumably being asked to co-operate with people substituting them as volunteers (quite possibly at a net cost to the taxpayer).

That all sounds extremely complicated to me, and yet this is the point at which the people running Brent's Human Resources Department have decided to get rid of all the experienced managers.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Brent Libraries Bucking the Trend Again

Some time ago, I was urged to publish the CIPFA comparison of public library figures.  CIPFA are due to publish this in the next day or two, and the Guardian has trailed it in advance.  As I suggested, library authorities around England are seeing visits and loans drop at an alarming rate.  The Brent figures are going up in both cases.  It is also worth noting that Brent library satisfaction ratings as measured by PLUS were better in 2012 than they were in 2009. 

I see that Brent does not quite get Wembley Library in the top ten busiest libraries in the Guardian piece, as it has "only" 651,677 visits for the year ending March 2014.  A glance at the more recent half year data suggests to me that that picture will change at the end of this financial year, as by then Wembley Library should be getting more than one million visits a year. 

Of course, it will again take a while for us to see this as CIPFA publish their comparisons quite late in the financial year.  Nonetheless, it is a good indication (yet again) that the Libraries Transformation Project was the right way to go. 


Scott Bartle is, as the judge remarked in the 2011 libraries judgement "simply wrong".  The decline of Brent libraries prior to 2011 could quite easily have continued as it has done across England.  Alternative strategies such as cutting opening hours would be overwhelmingly likely to affect visits and loan figures, as well as the positive user satisfaction ratings.  The positive figures show that the Libraries Transformation Strategy was a well founded strategy, which will be even more successful once the new Willesden Library Centre opens next year. 

Budget Savings in Brent Adult Social Care

Looking through the proposed Brent Budget savings in greater detail, I see a number of problems around deliverability that concern me.  It is easy enough to pass a piece of paper that says a saving will be made; actually making the saving in real life can be harder.

Looking at proposals not to pass on inflation costs, or containing demographic pressures within existing budgets, negotiating better rates from care providers all sound easy to say, but rather harder to do.  These are the big items in the Cabinet papers on Adult Social Care Savings.  The problem is that this has been tried before over many years.  How much is left to be squeezed?  My understanding is that many social care providers feel they are at breaking point.  It is also worth recalling that Brent Council has made commitments on the London Living Wage that may be undermined by further drives in this area.  It is also worth bearing in mind that many of the affected staff will be women, and the legalities of effectively specifically reducing the pay of female staff in particular are problematic to say the least.

The other striking thing about these proposals is how they may involve knock on costs.  Cuts to social care may well lead to people being in hospital for longer, and developing medical complications sooner.  It is part of the perversity of this process that that may not concern the Council since much of the cost may be borne by the NHS _ a "cost shunt" in other words.  However, it illustrates how the ConDem government's policies don't actually make savings that are sometimes claimed for them.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Return to Lincolnshire Procurement and Forced Privatisation

I see that there are developments following the Lincolnshire Libraries judicial review.  Lincolnshire County Council are now saying they are required to carry out a procurement exercise for a privatised library service. 

I assume that their logic derives from the Judge's view that Greenwich Leisure Limited (GLL) is a "relevant body" under the Localism Act.  I thought this sounded a bit odd when I first read it, and I still do.  GLL is to my mind a kind of social enterprise, but that does not mean that they are not a hard nosed commercial organisation.  The unions in their native heath of Greenwich don't seem to regard them as light and fluffy in the way people often think social enterprises are.   Indeed since they have a big chunk of the London market for managing leisure centres, we can assume that they are pretty commercially focused.  It sounds to me that a back door may have been opened by the Localism Act to forcing privatisation of Council services as GLL is being treated as a kind of community group when in reality it is not. 

This could be yet another source of burdens for Councils that are already struggling.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Harlesden Town Centre Work Draws to a Close

I am glad to see that the work on Harlesden Town Centre is so advanced, with the area in front of Harlesden Methodist Church almost finished.  I notice that they are finally removing the old "Harlesden City Challenge" bollards.  My impression is that the traffic flows  are smoother at the Royal Oak Junction, and once the buses resume going down that part of High Street Harlesden, the position should be still further improved.

Council Tax Rises in Brent

Following yesterday's post on the Brent Council Budget, I thought it worth going over Council Tax rises again.  Effectively, the Council can raise Council Tax by not more than 2%.  For some time, this has been frozen, although my experience is that residents haven't really noticed that.  Personally, I think that the Council Tax should be raised by just below the 2% rate that would trigger a referendum.  Here is why:

  • Firstly, a 2% rise is less than the rate of inflation, after a five year freeze.  Compare that to any other charge, and it is a very modest increase.  The Council has a policy with fees & charges in general of raising them by the rate of inflation each year.  Why should Council Tax be different?
  • Secondly, the implementation of a Council Tax Support Scheme has led to Council Tax rise for the poorest c.20,000 households in Brent.  No one wanted to do this, but the alternative was accepting a further c. £5 million in cuts.  In what sense is it fair to raise Council Tax for the poorest but not for taxpayers in general?
  • Thirdly, I have explained before that freezing the Council Tax effectively locks the Council into further cuts each year as the tax base is eroded.  Effectively, continually freezing the Council Tax means that the Council is digging its own financial grave.  At some point in the not too distant future, this will lead to major service breakdowns.
  • Fourthly, if people don't think that they are getting a freeze (which the Council's own consultation show that they don't) what is the political dividend of giving them one?
A 2% rise would add £1.6 million in revenue to the base budget, but that gain would be permanent for each year, just as the refusal to raise Council Tax creates more cuts each year.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Parking Charges in Brent

Aside from Council Tax, Brent's second biggest controllable income stream is parking charges.  These days, the Council also collects business rates for itself but it cannot decide the level.

For an authority in financial trouble, Brent has a decidedly lackadaisical approach to charges in this area.  Brent's general policy on charges, set in 2011, was to raise them significantly and have an inbuild lift of at least inflation.  This also mostly applied to parking charges, but in the past couple of years there has been a certain amount of apparently random tinkering without any strategy visible.

I suspect the main reasons for this are a prejudice in favour of car dependency, a low value on the benefits of reduced car use (improved air quality, lower GHG emissions, reduced congestion), a failure to recognise the inevitability of reducing car use in urban areas and simple ignorance of the basics of urban transport and planning.

There also appears to be a failure to recognise the extent to which car drivers are simply making a partial contribution to their preferred transport mode (Those roads cost a lot to maintain and repair), and a failure to make a rational comparison with the rising costs of other forms of transport compared to cars.

This is an area where some modest rises and rationalisation of charges could help protect the quality of life in the Borough.

More on Brent Budget

Some details of Brent Council's likely budget options are now out.  Oddly, they are published only just before the Full Council's Budget discussion this evening, so it is likely that many councillors will not have time to read them, or even be aware of them.  Since the information are in the Cabinet agenda, they will not be sent out as part of the Full Council summons.  The Cabinet papers are here, and make grim reading 

The first thing to remember is that it is not Brent Council that is choosing to force these cuts but the ConDem government.  The Tories and Liberal Democrats are on an ideological mission to shrink the state and they are doing so by cutting spending in a counterproductive austerity drive, which targets poorer areas and local government particularly.  They do not even appear to monitor the effects of these cuts, so I guess they don't care about them. 

Secondly, we should recall that there is no point shooting the messenger.  This has been a problem in the recent past.  I get the impression that some people were under the impression that removing Ann John as Leader would somehow obviate the need for a balanced budget.  What a surprise it didn't.  It simply encouraged people not to face problems squarely.  Similarly, some councillors seem to think the best response to any problem is to seek to blame Council officers, when they are merely giving their best advice on how to deal with the problems.  Turning on people who are merely trying to have an honest debate advances no one, and is a despicable form of behavior. 

A third point to remember is that delaying action merely reduces freedom of action further down the line.  For instance, Lambeth ceased all its school crossing patrol funding three years ago, but managed to persuade the schools themselves to keep funding them in half of the cases.  Brent adopted a gradual approach of reducing SCPs as the staff left, which also did away with half the patrols, but still leaves the service 100% dependent on direct Council funding and therefore still under threat.

The details are too lengthy for one post, so I shall probably do several.  The standard four ways of saving I have commented on before.  They are given as: driving efficiency, building community resilence (i.e. self funding groups), generating extra income and stopping services completely.  That is pretty much a rehash of the options that have been picked over before.

One inconsistency that strikes me is that in terms of income generation, the report mentions increasing charges and putting up rents for Council housing.  These understandable if regrettable responses are put in the context of trying to shield the poorest.  However, it is noticeable that the report sets its face against a modest rise in Council Tax despite the fact that bears down less on the poorest than increasing Council rents and other charges, and despite a Council Tax rise not being dependent on central government, and therefore allowing the Council to preserve more freedom of action for the future.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Politics and Theatre

In a recent post Paul Krugman assured his readers that "Government is more than theatre".  Actually, I think for many people, politics is just theatre.  This has struck me many times as I look at the various controversies that crop up in national and local politics.

Nationally, it seems often to be the minor but easily understandable failings of politicians that lead to resignations.  More important, but hard to understand issues such as the failure of universal credit, basic incompetence in doing your job or complex problems just don't get the same coverage.  I guess this is related to a general lack of interest in politics.  Many people regard it as being like plumbing; they just want it to work, and don't care how it does so.  I fear it is also related to the increasing instant gratificiation that one sees with modern media such as twitter.  Often I see twitter exchanges where people seem to react the headline, or a phrase, rather than actually read the link.  As headlines are frequently cruder than the articles they point to this can lead to some very ill informed exchanges.

Locally, I notice that people often engage in debates without seeing them as relating to practical consequences.  This runs quite contrary to my own mentality.  What I like most about local government is linking policy to actual events and decisions.  Others seems to see it as just giving rise to essentially symbolic debates.  I think of the attempt to turn the debate over the extremely practical public realm contract into a debate about Middle Eastern politics, the attempt to turn the Tricycle Theatre's muddled effort to avoid politics into a controversy about politics, or the simple failure to acknowledge the need for any choices at all.

Sometimes a whole series of proposals can be put forward.  Each would require significant work if taken forward, but the proposer just drops them as they are rejected.  An example, would be Paul Lorber's multiple library proposals.  In that case the result tended to follow a pattern of lots of noise, followed by complete silence on the issue once it is decided.

Alternatively, as in the FKRL case, a proposal can be rejected for a set of reasons.  A set of myths can then be invented that bear no relation to the facts.  Recently I have seen twitter exchanges in which people wrongly claim that the building is Council property, or that it could have remained so (which refuted here), or that the Council ignored key things such as the areas of deprivation (which anyone who reads the Bailey judgement knows to be untrue).   Such statements are then endlessly repeated, and most people simply don't check their veracity even though the relevant information is freely available.

This makes good decision making very hard, as populist campaigns can swamp the debate through sheer noise, as happened to some extent with the Willesden Library debate where a number of campaigners simply ignored the facts (more examples here).  I don't know what the solution to this sort of thing is, but the effect is to make it very hard for public authorities to function. 

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Cultural Diversity and Entrepreneurship

In Brent we often praise our diversity, but we seldom do much hard research into the claimed benefits.  I saw some such research here.  In so far as Brent Council actively encourages economic growth, it should ponder this kind of thing.  The authors arguments are that the keys to benefiting from immigration is that the immigrants be highly skilled, but able to integrate with local structures fairly easily.  Might seem obvious, but it does not fit in well with Homes Office policy.  It is also worth thinking about how the Councils could use things like BACES or public libraries to foster this.

Friday, 5 December 2014

IFS and George Osborne's Economic Failure

The IFS has called out George Osborne's Autumn statement, and effectively accused the Chancellor of pulling the wool over everyone's eyes.  I can't recall this ever happening before.  The IFS is non-partisan, and gets a lot of its credibility from so being.  Along with David Cameron's implausible promises of tax cuts at the last Tory Conference, it looks more and more like a Conservative Party making undeliverable promises in the face of economic failure. 

Scotland and the Carbon Bubble

The Bank of England is now looking at the danger of the carbon bubble as a concept.  This has been a concern to countries like Australia, which is heavily dependent on extractive industries, for some time.  As far as I recall it never really featured in the Indyref debate, although it adds to the other dangers an independent Scotland would face if too reliant on oil. 

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Worrying Signs in Brent Council's Budget

I have only had time for a cursory glance at the Brent Council budget documentation, which once again strikes me as fairly thin content.

One of the worrying suggestions is the use of reserves to prepare for universal credit.  In the past I criticised the Liberal Democrats for using reserves too readily at a time of uncertainty, and the same logic applies now.  Indeed, under Labour, the Council has built its reserves because it recognises the greater danger of "transformation" projects going wrong.  To start chipping away at the reserves in this way is a sign not just of a local authority in trouble but also a possible sign that it is a local authority trying not to recognise it is in trouble.

I am also concerned that a lot of the commentary seems quite vague, such as the suggestion the Council pursue more "shared services".  Of course all Councils are doing this, but getting such agreements is fraught with difficulties.  Again "managing demographic demand" is something everyone wants, but is very hard in practice.  There is a real danger of setting unrealistic targets and then failing to meet them, leading to further in year cuts and a loss of strategic direction.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Austerity and Local Government

I thought I should follow up on my post of yesterday about the austerity agenda.  The key confusion that the calls for Councils to "resist austerity" are based on the bizarre idea that local government can pursue a macro-economic agenda of expansion contrary to the policy of central government.  It can't.  Local government is so financially dependent on central government in this country, and legally bound to balance the budget each year so an independent economic policy is impossible.  Quite simply, macro-economic expansion is something only central government can do

This means that a Council such as Brent has to act within those severe limits.  The depth of the severity of the cuts of local government I referred to some days ago are usefully outlined here.  They are literally the worst seen since at least the 1930s.

The mitigation of the government's agenda  comes through:

  • Making genuine efficiency savings by doing things differently.  An example of this might be recycling more, which cuts the cost of disposal whilst essentially doing the same thing as before (collecting household waste).
  • Cutting real waste that does not deliver benefits to the public.  For instance, a lot of modern IT can deliver savings through avoiding bureaucracy.
  • Removing certain activities that are not really the business of Councils to provide, such as the grants to the potpourri of community festivals that Brent used to provide.
  • Increasing Council income through the better use of assets such as improved treasury management, commercial lettings, tax collection etc.

All this takes you so far.  It also demands a pretty hard nosed assessment of objectives and how to achieve them.  There is a constant danger of falling into the lazy mistake of assuming that spending equals achievement, which is the kind of thing I meant when I mentioned measuring outputs in street cleaning

I fear that Brent Council is getting less and less of this kind of thinking just at the time it needs it more and more.

That this is not yet apparent is related to Adam Smith's remark that "there is a great deal of ruin in a nation".  The cuts have long term effects that only become apparent after they have been in place a long time.  For instance, cuts to the highways budget mean slowly accumulating potholes.  By the time it has become a really serious problem the backlog of repairs needs a vast amount to fill.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Coalition Myths on Budget

A myth appears to be developing that Labour and the Tories have the same position on the budget deficit.  This is being particularly put about by fringe parties such as the Greens and UKIP, who try to paint the more established parties as the same.

In fact, as the first graph in this post handily shows, the three parties of government have significantly different positions.  The Tories are the keenest on more austerity and Labour the most reluctant.  This is unsurprising given that Ed Balls criticised the Tories rush to austerity as far back as August 2010, saying:

"[deficit reduction should be implemented] only once growth is fully secured and over a markedly longer period than George Osborne is currently planning …Just think if Clement Attlee’s government at the end of the second world war had decided that the first priority was to reduce the debts built up during the war – there would have been no money to fund the creation of the NHS, no money to rebuild the railways and housing destroyed in the blitz, no money to fund the expansion of the welfare state.”

This makes perfect sense within his essentially Keynesian analysis.  There is also the issue of where the cuts/tax rises would fall.  The Tories seem to be hellbent on a level of cuts that is simply undeliverable, largely because it fits in with the kind of crude bastardized Thatcherism that Cameron and Osborne have internalised to the level of prejudice.  Likewise, they appear utterly opposed to tax rises for the rich because of their views on trickle down economics.  Both those attitudes set them apart from Labour.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Ongoing Threats to Local Welfare Assistance

I have mentioned before the threats to Brent's local welfare assistance, as well as that of other authorities.  Now even Tory authorities are expressing concern.  Many thought the consultation that the government started after Islington threatened legal action was something of a sham, and I admire the way Islington is carrying on the fight.  If so, the government may be threatened with judicial review again.  As far as I know, the government has no effective monitoring of who benefits from this spending (and will therefore be most hurt by the cuts).  For instance, it cannot say how many victims of domestic violence would be affected.  I am not sure that it has the flimsiest data of any of the Equality Act strands.


I take it the anonymous questioner at  11.25 below is making a reference to the libraries consultation.  Many of the litigants in the library case tried to suggest that Brent's library consultation was a "sham", but the Judge roundly rejected this argument.  If you consult the text of the Bailey judgement, you find the consultation considered extensively and the litigants various arguments rejected.  Indeed the consultation arguments constituted the mainstay of the litigant case.  My view is that they did not so much resent the consultation (For instance they made no suggestions as to how it might have been done differently), they simpoly didn't like the decision at the end of it. 

That is a fair enough opinion, but don't claim that a consultation was a sham when it was not.  As the judge says in paragraph 80: "The Claimants do not say that all of this was a sham yet, if the Council did approach this with a closed mind on the involvement on community groups or on a subsidy for community groups, that is what it must have been. I simply do not accept that. The Claimants’ real contention is that the Council was not prepared to go along with alternatives which cost it money. ... It concluded for sound and legitimate reasons that it was not desirable, and the alternative means were not appropriate. S7 contains no duty to consider providing a subsidy if the Council do not consider that to be desirable or appropriate. The Council’s approach was entirely consistent with the requirement in s7(2) that the provision of library services by other means be “appropriate”. The Council was entitled to judge that, in dealing with a service the costs of which needed to be cut, some other means of provision was not appropriate if it cost the Council money over and above that which the Council was prepared to spend, or if it was unlikely to provide the service required."