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Saturday, 28 February 2015

Labour Business Plans

Yesterday I wen to hear Rachel Reeves MP present Labour's plans to boost business.  The whole agenda of improving productivity, making work pay, increasing research and development and so on seems so much more substantial than the Tories' race to the bottom.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Special Council Tax Meeting

I gather Brent Labour Group is having a special meeting about Council Tax levels tonight, called at very short notice.  I assume this is to attempt to regularise the rather messy situation that has been allowed to arise.  Really this whole issue could have been much better handled, as indeed could the budget as a whole.

OECD Gloom

The sheer gloom of the OECD analysis of the UK economy makes for depressing reading, especially the low productivity and tight housing supply.  Neither of these are likely to be helped by Tory policies.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Brent Council Tax Rise

Returning to the suggestion of a Brent Council Tax rise that has caused so much controversy.  I have summarised the arguments in favour here.  It is not hard to think of ways to spend the extra money.  In the past I have suggested expanding the local welfare provision.  I reckon a lot of people would support a modest Council Tax increase on that basis, but of course it is easy enough to think of other deserving objectives.

The main counter argument is that a Council Tax rise, even a slight one, raises living costs at a time when many people are under strain.  This is true, but it does not appear to have been widely noticed that Brent has already done this with changes to Council Tax Support, and specifically targeted a rise at those least able to pay. 

I reported on this at the time.  The changes put in place then affected people who had previously paid nothing because of their poverty.  In Brent that is about 21,000 people.  The standard rate was set at about 20% of the full charge.  Still a hefty discount, this was nonetheless a big rise from the zero level.  For instance, someone in a band D property would go from paying zero to almost £300/year. 

I asked a senior member of the Council Executive why that was the right choice for the poorest people, but he still felt the rate for everyone else had to be frozen. 

He couldn't think of an answer.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Equalities and Race

Martin Francis takes up the issue of Brent Council's equality policy and the behaviour of its head of human resources here.  I don't propose to go in to the details of the issue, where the Council is giving contradictory answers, and effectively fails to deal with the problem.  I have been highly critical of Brent Council's human resources department on this and other issues before

What I wanted to pick up on is Martin's view that "Consideration of the Equalities issue would perhaps carry more weight and be more robust if some Cabinet members stepped aside in favour of substitutes who are members of the BAME community."

I think this is a very old fashioned view which is actually quite wrong.  Firstly, there is the obvious point that we should all be concerned about racial discrimination, whatever our ethnicity.  I don't agree with the implication that only someone from an ethnic minority can properly make a judgement. 

The second, wider, point is that a modern understanding of equalities goes well beyond race.  Current legislation, and the wider political culture, recognises a number of different strands where discrimination can come into play, including sex, religion, age, disability sexuality and so on.  We all of us, meet at least three of what the law calls "protected characteristics".   The characteristics (such as disability for example) can in any case be catch all groups that actually cover a range of people with very different problems.  It is also true that people in one or other of these strands are not exempt from prejudice simply on that basis (e.g. anti-Semitic white people can discriminate against white jews).

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Natalie Bennett Car Crash Interview

I had always assumed that Brent Green Party were outliers in being so flaky.  Not only have they a history of opposing sensible proposals, they don't even seem to be particularly environmentalist.  Natalie Bennett's car crash interview on LBC this morning makes me wonder if they are all like that.

Wembley Library Twelfth Biggest in the UK

I have long championed Wembley Library against its critics.  This includes a number of people who, like Paul Lorber, describe themselves as "library campaigners".  I recently learnt that is the previous financial year, it was the twelfth biggest library in the UK by visits.  This success was predictable from the early figures.  My expectation is that the full year figures this year will top a million, which is a level of footfall that would take Wembley Library into the top ten.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Brent Budget Consultation

Brent Council Cabinet will pass its budget recommendations tonight, including the controversial freeze in Council Tax. 

I have commented before that I think the whole process has been flawed this year.  It began much later in the year than has historically been the norm.  Many of the proposals seem to lack any overarching strategy, even going against the Council's general position in parking for example.  Most seem to be negative, cost driven proposals.  Indeed the only positive measure I can see is the proposals to reduce electricity use in street lighting.  Many of the proposals strike me as implausible in how far they might actually save money.  Some seem to be of dubious legality.  All these flaws seem to me to undermine the whole legitimacy of the budget consultation

The results of the consultation have a specific section (8) in the Cabinet Budget report.  The results strike me as distinctly limited for what was billed as a major exercise. The most substantial results are a Residents Attitude Survey   The RAS is an exercise that the Council undertakes periodically anyway.  There are 237 written responses specific to this budget.  There are also vague comments about "workshops" and Brent Connects.  It is not entirely clear how the feedback from these "workshops" are being fed back to members.  Most striking of all is a lack of data on the equality impacts, which has often been central to judicial reviews in recent years.

Compare that to the Libraries Transformation Project consultation of 2011, which covered only a small proportion of the total Council budget, and the current Budget consultation seems much smaller in scale.  The Libraries consultation had 1,517 questionnaire responses, as well as numerous other written responses.  The present budget consultation appears to have had only 237 submissions in total.  The full details are also in section eight of the original report.  It is surprising that a consultation on one part of the Budget should attract more attention than a consultation on the whole gamut of the Counjcil's activities. 

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Welsh Volunteer Libraries

I have mentioned before that many local authorities seem to be heading down the volunteer libraries route without any evidence that it will work.  The Welsh government has produced some more research on the subject. 

One of the key conclusions is that volunteer libraries only really work with substantial local authority support.  If so, I wonder whether they actually save the local authority any money?

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Arts Workshops at Willesden Green Library

Brent Council is advertising arts workshops at Willesden Green Library, as part of the new Willesden Library Centre.  This follows from the earlier Positive Arts project.  I am really glad that Brent Libraries and Regeneration staff are still finding ways for Brent Council to support the arts despite the worsening financial position.  Supporting the arts was an intrinsic part of the libraries transformation project

Friday, 20 February 2015

The Fate of Ward Working?

Looking through the Brent Council Budget papers, I can't find any reference to Ward Working.  I highlighted before that I thought this an area of concern.  It would represent a further diminution in the role of the councillors, as it is the only part of the budget that they can directly control to benefit their wards.  Along with the virtual abolition of scrutiny and the ignoring of majority votes, it will leave them little role at all.

Can anyone spot the fate of ward working in these budget papers?

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Council Tax Embarrassment

Reports of the discussion of Council Tax increases cause me some embarrassment as a member of the Labour Party.  It seems that the Labour Group debated and voted on the issue, deciding in favour of a rise just short of what would trigger a referendum.  This seems eminently sensible to me for reasons I have explained

It now appears that the Executive plan to simply ignore the majority of the Group, and freeze the Council Tax.  I have never heard of such a thing in Brent or in any other authority, or indeed any other party.  Such blatant disregard makes everyone involved look ridiculous.

It is normal for Budgets to be subject to Group whipping, but since the majority voted in favour of an increase, I would have thought the Labour whip is in favour of the increase rather than against it.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Shared Library Services

There is a persistent legend, particularly promoted by Tim Coates, that UK library authorities do not share services.  In fact this is not so, and the next Brent Council Cabinet agenda gives an example.  It is considering two different ways to purchase library stock, and achieve discounts through economies of scale.  Such arrangements are common, although entering into them is more complicvated than some library campaigners seem to believe.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Putting the Clock Back

I was sorry I couldn't attend the Jubilee Clock event on Saturday.  I was busy doing the Lord's work doorstepping for Tulip Siddiq in West Hampstead.  Somebody asked me why the clock has changed colour.  Apparently it was painted differently at the time of the Harlesden City Challenge.  The new colours are based on the original Victorian colour scheme.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Costs of Volunteer Libraries

I have pondered before the success of volunteer (community managed) libraries.  What worries me is that there is very little evidence either way.  Given how central the approach is in many authorities, this is rather worrying. 

In the Brent case, we dealt with this at one point during the Willesden Green Library Saga.  It was proposed that instead of having interim services as they are now, we should re-open some of the closed libraries and use those on a temporary basis.  This was dealt with at the time.  The upfront cash costs of re-opening were substantial, more than £1.2 million (paragraph 3.13 of the report).

More interesting are the comments in the subsequent paragraph:

"There is also proposal that a proportion of these costs could be mitigated by using volunteers. If we are looking to provide a full and reliable seven day a week library service then the wisdom of relying on volunteers needs to be examined in line with our LTP. Volunteers to complement the work of professional staff can be beneficial but replacement of staff with volunteers is not part of the LTP. Managing, recruiting and training volunteers is a cost that is not warranted by the impact of the short term closure."

It emphasises, as has been done by some campaign groups such as SLAM, that volunteer libraries may end up costing more. 

Partly a service needs to be restructured so that professional staff are available to manage and advise the volunteers.  Partly, volunteers still require training and may6 have other on costs.  One doesn't really get the impressions that these aspects are really considered by authorities such as Lincolnshire of Leicestershire.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Study Spaces in Brent Libraries

One of the concerns with the original Libraries Transformation Project, and especially the decision to redevelop Willesden Library, was around study spaces.  I mentioned before that I am not sure how far Brent has actually met this need.  The plan for dealing with it was comprehensive (from the original papers to the Executive):

Study space and computers
3.8 Study space is a key part of the interim servi ce and during the 2012 exam
period space will be provided from the current WGLC
3.9 On an average day, staff observation shows that just under half of the study
spaces and computers are in use at any one time (60 of the 130 study spaces
and 20 of the 37 public internet pcs). During the exam period of April – June 
more of the spaces are used. The interim service delivery strategy has been
designed to match this provision as closely as possible. We have organised a
minimum of 50 spaces on a day to day basis: 
•10 PCS and 10 spaces at the temporary Grange Road library
•Further additional PCs and spaces in the alternative premises in Willesden
•20 extra spaces at Kilburn library
•5 extra spaces at Ealing Road
•5 extra spaces at Town Hall
3.10 In addition, during exam time, we are negotiating for a further 80 spaces. At
least 30 in the redevelopment of Roundwood Youth Centre (opening in the
summer of 2012) and a further 50 spaces in a nearby premises. These will be
supplemented by an additional 40 spaces at the new Civic Centre in Wembley.
This will be closely monitored and if necessary we will continue to negotiate
with local venues for further study spaces. 
The "alternative premises in Willesden Green" are the Lewinson Centre, where a tenancy was still under negotiation at the time.  I am not sure if the Roundwood Youth Centre deal actually came off , but the aim was effectively to have more spaces than at the starting point.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Brent Scrutiny Overloaded?

Looking at the most recent Scrutiny agenda, I am once again struck at how much detail is in these reports.  I very much doubt that one meeting can examine such a detailed range of issues properly. 

Friday, 13 February 2015

Topping Out at the Willesden Green Library Centre

Attended the topping out event at Willesden Green Library Centre yesterday, presided over by Cllr Lesley Jones.  It is good to see the building so advanced.  I understand that practical completion is intended to be agreed in June.  When I asked about the actual opening of the Library I was told "late Summer", which is later than I had hoped but there we are.

I look forward to seeing it in action.  Among the attendees at this event was one of the fiercest proponents of the bid for Town Green status.  He now seems reconciled to the new Centre, which I am sure will immensely benefit Willesden Green.  Without a certain amount of persistence, not least in promoting the Libraries Transformation Project, none of this would have happened. 

Incidentally, I learnt that some people from Lewisham had visited earlier in the day, to see what they could learn lessons for their own library services.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Brent Schools Investment

I see that the Liberal Democrats are seeking to claim credit for investment in Our Lady of Lourdes Stonebridge and St Margaret Clitherow in Welsh Harp.  I am sure we can all agree with Nick Clegg when he says "“It is crucial that we invest properly in education, so that every child has a fair start in life."  It is a shame that he and Sarah Teather did not take that view when they abolished Building Schools for the Future funding

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

The Benefits of the New Willesden Library Centre

As the date for the opening of Willesden Green's new Library Centre approaches, I regret that the Council is not more on the ball in communications.  The available data online is out of date in various ways.  This is frustrating as a number of the usual suspects are eager to portray the project as negatively as possible.  I have never understood why people who claim to be in favour of public services seem to spend most of their time claiming that the said public services are terrible.  In Brent, the libraries have had the most abuse in this way, but it seems to be true of all local government, and indeed the NHS. 

In the case of Willesden Green Library, this includes the failings of the old Library Centre.  It had numerous problems.  It had been designed with a poor exterior which minimised its attractiveness, and thereby undermined its potential for regeneration and activities within it.  I suspect that this is a key reason for the failure of both the Cinema and the Cafe.  The poor sound insulation helped ensure that the community space was unusable for its original purpose of musical performance.  It also suffered from poor environmental standards that meant it was more expensive to heat than it need have been. 

The new Willesden Centre will  have far higher building standards, a better relationship with the wider public realm, a series of community spaces,a rebuilt Museum, a Brent Archive with climate controlled storage, modern access to Brent Council customer services, a cafe, and of course a big new Willesden Library.

I have made these and similar points before.  I wish the Council's communications team were more effective in publicising the benefits for both Willesden and the wider area. 

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Brent Libraries Leading the Way

Chris Bryant has publicized the grim numbers for library use in England and Wales.  There are 282 million visits in 1013-14, compared to 322 million four years before.  It is ironic that the article is illustrated with a picture of the former Kensal Rise Library, as Brent is bucking the national trend with both its visit and loan numbers going up.  The Brent Libraries Transformation Project is a model of good practice, not least in its emphasis on "Free public wifi access with improved speeds and more plug sockets" at every library as the Sieghart Review has recommended. 

I hear rumours that Brent is rolling back from suggestions of privatisation.  I was never quite sure what was meant by privatisation anyway, and I am not sure that anyone in Brent Council was either.  It makes me wonder about the planned restructuring of library management.  This envisaged combining the Sports, Parks and Cemeteries post with the Library Arts & Heritage post in a big management role focused on commissioning.  If library privatisation does not go ahead, this would mean that post would spend a lot of time clienting contractors in sports centres, grounds maintenance and so on, but also run a directly employed library service.  I suspect that demands two quite different sets of skills, as well as coping with a big workload as the new Willesden Green Library Centre opens. 

Perhaps this has not been fully thought through?

Monday, 9 February 2015

Misdirected Debate

Yesterday's post about using procurement processes to push the London Living Wage, reminds me of a problem that has often struck me about political debates.  They are so frequently misdirected on to the wrong subjects.

In the case of the Public Realm Contract, there was a lot of publicity aimed at excluding one particular contractor.  This went on even after it was made perfectly clear that excluding that company would be legally and logistically impossible.  In fact, the campaigners were effectively proposing that Veolia be given a lot of extra money at Brent Council's expense. 

In pursuing this futile campaign, they also ignored the many benefits of the public realm contract, including reasonably radical ones like enforcing the London Living Wage.  Even after the contract was through, the campaigners showed no further interest in how it worked.  This means that the scrutiny of such matters is sporadic, and often occurs far too late to influence the process.

For example, there has been little attention paid to the current Brent budget proposals to eliminate street cleaning in the majority of Brent streets.  Stopping that proposal now would probably save a lot of trouble later on, as I am sure that if it goes ahead the Council will be forced into a u-turn at great expense.  Yet it looks as if it will be nodded through, and the controversy will only be stirred up once it is actually implemented.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

London Living Wage and Brent Council Procurement

One of Brent' Council's commitments on the London Living Wage is to use its procurement process to get contractors to adopt the London Living Wage for all their employees.  An exception is made for Adult Social Care contracts.  The London Living Wage has already been awarded in the cases of LoHac and the Public Realm Contract.  Despite their supposedly progressive stance, Brent Green Party has not shown any interest in this aspect of the Council.  It is, however, one of the most effective ways that Brent Council can address the rising cost of living for Londoners.

In principle, it should be possible to draw up a list of future contracts and estimate the cost of the policy.  Hopefully, this will be part of the proposed review of Brent Passenger Services.  I suggested before that one of the reasons that reviews of passenger services in other Boroughs were so disastrous was that they tried to cut corners to meet financially driven targets.  Committing to the London Living Wage in this area (which would just be an extension of the Council policy agreed years ago) would be an indication that Brent Council cares about quality of service and not just cutting costs.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Savings from LoHac Contract

Thinking about Brent Council's budget again, I wonder what is expected from the LoHac agreement?  I introduced this at the Brent Executive back in 2012.  As I recall, officers were cautious in their estimates of savings, as it was a new contract of a very different type to the ones we had done before.

The logic is one of shared services giving economy of scale.  When it was introduced in 2013, only Brent and Barnet came on (as new Boroughs join as their existing contracts expire).  By now, many more Boroughs should have joined, and therefore the savings should be greater. 

Friday, 6 February 2015

The Queensbury and Local Listing

I had a recent exchange on twitter about the local listing of The Queensbury in Willesden.  This was actually covered a long time ago at the Planning Committee meeting of 19 February 2015 (see page 3 of the minutes).  The actual document we were discussing is hard to find, as it is buried away in a supplementary

According to the Save The Queensbury Group, they had been promised this review of locally listed buildings, but not been told about it, which seems rather slack.  However, as the documents show, it did happen, although The Queensbury was not listed.

The Save Queensbury group feel this disadvantages them in the Planning Inquiry that has just finished.  I am more skeptical.  Local listing merely means that the officers point out to the Committee that a building is considered of significance.  It is a "material consideration", but that in no way binds the Committee.  If you look at the list in the Supplementary, some buildings are there to be taken off the list as they no longer exist.  It is therefore very different from a statutory listing, such as the former Dollis Hill House.  That requires permission from the Secretary of State, which can be very hard to obtain

Thursday, 5 February 2015

End of Local Welfare Assistance in Brent?

I hear that Brent's Local Welfare Assistance is under threat as a result of further central government cuts.  Of course, local welfare assistance has been in danger for a long time, but this looks as if it could be the end.  The rumour is that funding will cease entirely from April, and Brent will only continue with the scheme until the funding from this year's budget runs out.  If so, that could impose serious hardship on many of the most vulnerable people in our community.


There now appears to be an indication that Councils in England & Wales will be granted £74 million for this purpose, which would still represent a halving of the previous (already reduced) funding.  

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Council Tax Rises

Martin Francis comments on the possibility of a modest Council Tax rise in Brent.  I have rehearsed the arguments in favour of a small rise before.  The strongest seems to me the effect on the long term future of the Council, similar to that in Scotland

This was well understood back in 2011, as the report Martin refers to shows.  The 2011 one off grant was in fact added to reserves on the basis that it would eventually disappear. 

The second argument that seems unarguable is the fairness point.  If Cllr Muhammed Butt had no objection to a rise for the poorest residents under the Council Tax Support scheme (and both as Lead Member for Finance and Leader of the Council he supported it), how can it be fair to have no rise for other residents.  Isn't that the reverse of protecting the most vulnerable?

Mike Pavey Equalities Review

Those interested in the Mike Pavey review into Brent's equalities practices can find it here.  As I noted before, its terms of reference do not address what I would see as the most important questions around Brent Council floundering HR practices. 

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

More Affordable Housing Say Property Developers

The Guardian has a rather surprising story here.  Property Developers calling for more affordable housing!  And good on Tessa Jowell for following it up.

Closing Library Buildings

Public Libraries News has a post suggesting that sometimes closing a library building is the best choice available.  This is an argument I have been making for some years

The location, quality and status of individual libraries is the result of decisions made over many decades for all sorts of reasons.  In Brent, for example, libraries were founded between the 1890s and 1950s in a number of places.  No doubt at the time finance and other contingencies played their part.  Since that time important facts have changed, such as the distribution of population.

I think the piece is wrong, however, to suggest that a lack of protest necessarily means that the library is not needed, or that the presence of vociferous protests necessarily means a particular building is vital.  Unfortunately some kinds of community, that may have the greatest need, are least prone to protesting.  Other areas with less need can be full of articulate people who are good at mobilizing protests.  Simply being driven by the number of protests could lead to some very skewed decisions.

Another curiosity that struck me during the passage of Brent's Libraries Transformation Project is that people often protest vicariously.  Many times I encountered people who said things along the lines of "I don't use libraries much but it is important for group X."  This opinion being based on gut instinct rather than the kind of assessment that the High Court judge described as "rigorous" and "thorough".  Ignoring such an assessment in order to placate protest groups would have meant that the Council would not have achieved the success that Brent Libraries now have

Monday, 2 February 2015

Willesden Green Library Topping Out

I understand that the topping out ceremony of the new Willesden Green Library Centre is due on 12 February.  The centre itself is due to open in June.  This will mark the final stage of the Libraries Transformation Project which has already seen so much success for Brent Libraries


Topping out is a milestone in the building project.  It marks the completion of the structure, although a lot of work remains to be done inside.