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Thursday, 28 May 2015

Brent Library Cards in the Guardian

Brent Library Cards feature in this piece on library cards from the Guardian.  I remember the delight on the face of the little girl who won the design competition for the library card, which was a delight to see. 

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Brent Council Confused Over Property

Perhaps the most interesting paper before Brent Council's next Cabinet is its new property strategy.  This marks a radical reversal of previous policy, which was to dispose of property if it was not going to be used for public purposes.

The new strategy has two apparently contradictory aims.  One is to maximise value through renting property.  The second is maximise "social value" through renting below market rates to worthy causes.  Of course this all takes place in an environment where the Council's income from fees & charges, Council Tax and government grant will all be in decline.  Inevitably, this locks Brent Council into cutting public services to the maximum extent possible, which I suspect is not a policy that the majority of those who voted in May 2014 would support (although it is very much what the newly elected Tory government supports).

A still more startling suggestion is that:

" In particular there is scope to develop the investment portfolio within the residential market (where the highest growth potential exists) in order to both support endeavours to meet housing need and deliver a revenue return."

That5 sounds like the Council wanting to become its own property developer.  The only recent example of the Council pursuing this role is in Thames Court in South Kilburn, where the Council had all sorts of cost overruns and quality problems.  In short it was not a success. Hence the Council's subsequent reliance on private developers who know more about running building projects. 

It also of course plunges the Council into the middle of the debate about affordable housing and planning gain.  Developers seek to minimise affordable housing because they make more money that way.  That would be in line with the Council's desire for a "revenue return".  That is flatly contradictory to the other aim of using the policy to "meet housing need.

Another area of concern is the arbitrariness of decisions under this policy.  We have seen before that such decisions can be based around the historical accident of where buildings happen to be, the actual of perceived strength of certain lobby groups, the closeness of such groups to particular figures on the Council, and not the rational interests or strategy of the Council.  At its worst, such an approach can lead to the kind of politics that now appears to be coming to an end in Tower Hamlets.

I am also struck by the lack of realism in some of the wording about "buying" in large stretches of the Borough.  With what precisely?  The Council's own access to capital and revenue funding is being rapidly depleted by central government, and increasingly its own decisions. Other potential partners, such as housing associations, seem likely to have their resources cut by the Tory government's policies, most notably extending the Right to Buy.  Where does Brent Council think it is going to get the money from?

Altogether, I get the impression of an institution that doesn't really have a clear idea of what its priorities are.  It just has a vague idea it wants to be nice to everyone.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Brent Council Fees and Charges

I note the forthcoming report on Brent Council's fees and charges is to tread water on most of them.  This is different from the previous policy, which was to have a default of increasing them in line with inflation.  It essentially locks Brent Council into a pattern of diminishing spending as the frozen fee levels see less and less revenue.  Historically this has been periodically reversed with large above average increases to all income to "catch up". 

The officers advise (at the report) that:

"If it is decided not to increase charges in line with inflation, this will generally have the impact of increasing the level of subsidy provided by the Council to service users. Once a decision is made to freeze charges, it is difficult to recover the lost income without increasing costs by more than inflation in a future period. The financial implications of freezing charges can therefore be regarded as permanent."

It is therefore rather similar to the arguments over freezing Council Tax levels that led to such peculiar debates within Brent Labour Group earlier this year. 

We shall see what happens.

Monday, 25 May 2015

A revival of Scrutiny at Brent Council?

It would seem that Brent Council's Scrutiny Committee has had a major change of personnel.  This is to be welcomed as the new Committee at least want to scrutinise things whereas too often the old Scrutiny Committee seemed to have no interest in scrutiny at all.  Brent's current scrutiny set up appears designed to keep Scrutiny to a bare minimum.  I have argued before that there is plenty of scope to be much more ambitious.  I hope the new Committee members feel the same way.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Bomb Alerts and the Willesden Library Centre

The recent bomb alert in Wembley illustrates another advantage of the Willesden Green Library project.  In the event that the Civic Centre had to be evacuated, the Willesden Centre would be useful for running Council services on an emergency basis.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Brent Civic Centre Accessibility

At the Civic Centre on Sunday, I noticed that the glass lifts have been converted to swipe cards only.  At the same time, the external entrance to Wembley Library was closed off, so that you could only enter the library via the Atrium entrance.  I assume the library entrance closure was just a temporary measure as there was a match on, but the inaccessibility of the lifts seems a retrograde step.  When the Civic Centre issue was being debated, I recall one of the main emphasises of the project was that it was for a public building for the people of Brent to use; not a building to be closed off.  That is one of the reasons why Wembley Library was put in such a prominent place in the building.  It would be a pity if the ethos was changed.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Wembley Library in Top Ten UK Libraries?

Following on from my previous post on the annual library numbers, it is worth pointing out that Wembley Library is almost certainly now in the top ten public libraries nationally, as predicted.  The most recent annual figures for Wembley Library are 1,169,735 visits and 177,640 loans for the year ending 31 March 2015. 

Friday, 15 May 2015

Of Fire Drills and Library User Numbers

A comment on my post of a couple of days ago tries to account for the rise in user numbers in Brent Libraries by arguing it is all down to passing traffic in Wembley Library.  I find this far fetched. 

Firstly the numbers refer to all six Brent libraries, not just Wembley.  They include, for example, a substantial rise in usage at Kilburn Library.

Secondly, the big rise in visits is very hard to explain simply through fire drills at Wembley Library.  Wembley Library certainly can be accessed en route from the main building to the outside, as could the old Brent Town Hall Library, and I dare say for a fire drill you would use all available exits from the building.  The Civic Centre, like the former Brent Town Hall, has such exists on all four sides.  In both cases I imagine the library formed a route in and out of the building for fire drill purposes.

The Brent Town Hall Library in its last full year of operation had 200k visits.  Wembley Library this year had 1,170k (rounded).  I just can't see a serious of fire drills making up a gap of 970k visits.  The old Town Hall had about 2,000 people working there, just as the Civic Centre now has.  If we assume that a quarter of the employees leave through Wembley Library during a fire drill, which I would think a pretty generous measure, that means 500 people leaving through the exit per fire drill.  Assuming they go back in the same way at the end of the drill, we would need Brent to hold about four fire drills every working day in addition to whatever was the practice at the Town Hall to account for the extra Wembley Library numbers.  I would imagine that would take several hours out of each day, and does not strike me as plausible.

The determined opponents of Brent Libraries really do just have to accept that Brent libraries are better used than they were in 2011. 

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Brent Library Visits Top Two Million and Loans Top One Million

The General Election has inspired gloom in many, not least in the library sector.  I thought I would take another look at Brent's library numbers, which are actually rather cheering.  I think people in some other parts of the country might take a look at Brent and see how public libraries have improved here despite massive cutbacks.

Firstly, lets look at the visit numbers since Brent passed its Libraries Transformation Project back in April 2011.

Annual visit numbers have gone up by 40% by the end of 31 March 2015, topping two million.  The full table is here:

2011/12       1,506,852
2012/13       1,526,095              1.3%
2013/14       1,654,807              8.4%
2014/15       2,112,149            27.6%

Annual loan numbers for the same period are:

2011/12        985,590
2012/13        963,188                -2.3%
2013/14        996,930                 3.5%
2014/15      1,021,180                2.4%

The third relevant test is the user satisfaction ratings, which are pretty good, although they have not been renewed for a while. 

This performance is all the more remarkable given the general decline of library usage across the country.  Brent libraries buck this trend

Why are Brent Libraries Successful?
Many people find these numbers counter intuitive because in 2011 Brent decided to close half its libraries, and significantly reduce the overall budget.  How therefore can the number of users and loans and satisfaction ratings all have increased?

My answer would be that, at least in a small urban area with good transport links, people can travel to a different library fairly easily.  The second, often overlooked part of the answer, is that Brent deliberately improved the libraries that were kept open.  Opening hours were extended to seven days a week.  The book fund was protected (although it has now fallen back to a level just above Brent's CIFPA comparator Boroughs).  Crucially, Brent also had major capital investment to improve its libraries in Kilburn, Wembley and Willesden as well as more minor changes in the other three.

This has also allowed the library service to engage more with changing social trends.  Some have claimed that these trends make libraries obsolete.  I think that changes in technology actually make libraries more relevant than ever, although with less of an emphasis on paper books. 

Newer libraries are able to be able to be designed in a way that accommodates wireless technology more easily, as opposed to a model based on deskbound computers.  Bigger libraries , such as Wembley, have more flexibility to deal with events, or with the different needs of users (such as small children who tend to be noisy as opposed to students who want quiet to study). 

Why are Brent Libraries Important?
The importance of Brent libraries for other areas is that they show a model that can be made to work despite continuing cuts in funding.  Granted it is a model for urban areas, and rural areas face very different problems.  However, the present government has been re-elected, and looks set to continue to continue its library policy.  An example like Brent, which shows that public library services do not just have to be about nothing but ongoing cuts, should be welcomed.


I have answered the comment below querying the role of fire drills in a separate post

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Tricycle Theatre and Jewish Film Festival Make Up

I have been rather busy during the General Election so this blog has rather fallen into disuse.  However, it is noteworthy that the Tricycle Theatre have now apologized to the Jewish Film Festival (JFF). I always thought the Tricycle had just been the victim of its own muddled thinking rather than ill intentioned so I hope their relations return to normal.