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Saturday, 31 October 2015

Death of Cllr Dan Filson

I am sorry to hear that Cllr Dan Filson, Councillor for Kensal Green, has died.  As well as being known in Brent he was widely known and respected in the Labour & Co-operative Movement throughout London.  In Brent, he became Chair of Scrutiny and brought a much deeper level of seriousness to the scrutiny of Council business.  This would have come as no surprise to those who knew him.

In conversation, he would always treat the details of policy in depth pursuing the line of the enquiry to the end.  This is most true when he was discussing education (which he had been chair of during his previous time as a councillor in Hammersmith & Fulham), but was also true of many other subjects.  He is a great loss to the Council and the Party in general. 

Friday, 30 October 2015

Volunteers and Employment Risk

Public Libraries News, which is the leading source of information on UK public libraries, has an interesting piece about the risks of volunteer libraries.  These apply not just to libraries but also other kinds of "Big Society" solutions to public services.

I had quite a lot to do with various "Big Society" campaigns in Brent.  Some of these were proposals related to libraries, but there were other kinds such as the Charteris Sports Centre, that threw up much of the same issues.  What struck me about many of these proposals was firstly the very optimistic assumptions that tended to be made, and (more surprisingly) the refusal to consider the kind of issues in the PLN piece.  Such queries were often dismissed as "red tape" or "bureaucratic" when in fact they were sensible attempts to forestall potential problems.

The issues of responsibilities regarding volunteers is really crucial to any kind of "Big Society" solution.  I can't envisage how any such solution would work without a quasi-employment relationship for the volunteers.  In order to make sure a building was open at certain hours, for instance, you would have to have an obligation by volunteers to turn up at that time.  That then creates the potential legal issues mentioned in the PLN article.  These are on top of the various other issues that may crop up.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Access to Brent Civic Centre

It is good to see that Brent Council is now treating disabled access at the Civic Centre very seriously.  Positive action to enhance disabled access beyond strict legal requirements will strike most people as common sense, especially for an authority that regards itself as forward.  It also a change from the previous attitude which I blogged on at the time.  In that case, an elderly person using crutches was told that they had to provide their own wheel chair, which caused significant avoidable discomfit to her.  I was told that this decision was made at a political level and based on personal dislike of the individual.  I am glad that a new approach is being taken. 

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Barham Trust Meets Again

There is yet another meeting of the Barham Trust today which conjures up some unexpected issues. 

There is an item on the Veterans Club that rents part of the building complex.  It would appear that a member of the public complained that the Club was not inclusive.  The Council decided to investigate the Club's activities with regard to equalities.

This surprises me, as I have previously argued that the Council (i.e. the Trust) is simply a landlord, and shouldn't worry about what its tenants are doing, aside from keeping to the tenancy agreement.  However, the Committee's legal advice appears to be slightly different:

"Although charities are not public bodies, they may still be covered by the general duty if they exercise public functions, and equality legislation does have an impact on their service delivery or charitable objects."

The recommendations involve various Council officers taking a very pro-active approach to promoting equalities issues in the Club.

I would have thought that this policy would have to apply not just to the Veterans club, but also to the other two tenants.  To implement the policy with regard to one tenant but not to the two others strikes me as irrational.

Although this is advice to the Trust, which is separate to the Council as a whole, I imagine it would also be applicable to other buildings where the Council is acting as landlord, which will unfortunately add to the complexities of management of such properties. 

Going to Plan
Otherwise, it sounds as if the Trust is progressing well according to the plan agreed some time ago after consultation.  Works to the buildings have progressed.  The bank of leylandi trees, which I understood have been the focus for anti-social behavior, are being removed and replaced with a path.  ACAVA have now moved in as a tenant, and their studios are fully occupied, which will surprise Paul Lorber who argued that there was no demand for artist studios in the area. 

The leasing of the community lounge, which is the only item I can see that deviates from the original plan, which was to allow ad hoc lettings, will generate further income _ reducing the Trust's dependence on Brent Council for funding. 

I am a little surprised by the detail that the Trust will ask the Charity Commission's permission to rent the Children's Centre building to the Council, but I assume that is just a technical detail. 

Altogether it seems that the Trust has made a lot of progress since the "years of neglect" under Paul Lorber. 

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

The Importance of Registering to Vote

The Labour Party in Brent and nationally had a number of street stalls promoting electoral registration at the weekend.  Speaking to some one at the stall outside Willesden Library, it seems many people don't realise the importance of this.  The Tory government has switch ed the rules to discourage registration in a tactic that is known in the USA as "voter suppression".  The register for December this year will then be used as the basis for redrawing constituency boundaries so that it is easier for the Tories to win future General Elections.  You can register to vote here

Monday, 26 October 2015

What the Public Think of Brent Libraries

As well as a successful record in terms of increasing visits and loans, Brent Libraries have also seen great improvements in user satisfaction.  Although I have blogged on the 2012 results that came at the end of 2012, about a year and a half after the decision to implement the Libraries Transformation Project, I thought it would be interesting to look at the PLUS results historically. 

PLUS (Public Library User Survey) is a survey carried out by CIPFA across all library authorities in England every three years.  The graph above gives figures in three columns using a baseline of 50% to highlight the difference more dramatically.  Blue is 2006; red is 2009, and green is 2012. 

Between 2006 and 2009, I think it is fair to say the Council was treading water or even sliding backward.  After the 2011 decision, the green column goes well ahead of the 2009 results on all the criteria.  The actual table of results is here:

Very Good/Good Rating for Brent Libraries 2006 2009 2012
Overall Satisfaction 86% 77% 83%
Opening Hours 85% 85% 90%
Customer Care 93% 81% 84%
Books: physical condition 74% 74% 82%
Attractiveness of Library: inside 72% 68% 77%
Information provision 86% 70% 76%
Books: choice 66% 63% 73%
Computer facilities 71% 64% 70%
Attractiveness of Library: outside 59% 62% 66%

Individual Libraries
The Survey also asked about individual libraries.  It is notable that all the libraries, aside from the old Brent Town Hall library, improve between 2009 and 2012.

Brent Town Hall library has now been replaced by Wembley Library.  I shall be very disappointed if the next PLUS survey does not show a big improvement in its rating.  Likewise, "Willesden Library" in the graph is actually the old Willesden Library.  Hopefully, the next survey will again show a boost in ratings.  The biggest jumps in ratings at Kingsbury, Harlesden and Kilburn all seem to coincide with major refurbishments at those libraries, a sign that the quality of the building improves all other aspects of the library.

The full figures for the graph above are here:

Very Good/Good Overall Satisfaction by library 2006 2009 2012
Brent Town Hall 70% 77% 69%
Ealing Road 63% 80% 82%
Harlesden 68% 62% 80%
Kilburn 70% 77% 91%
Kingsbury 71% 85% 86%
Willesden 81% 73% 87%

Sunday, 25 October 2015

SUDs in Willesden Green

Passing along Grange Road in Willesden a few days ago, I notice the rainwater harvesting feature in place at the new flats there.  The planning permission explicitly required such measures, which are known to planners as Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDs).  These are now common features in large planning applications, although I personally pressed for this one. 

Contract Management Difficulties

Out in a different Borough a few days ago, I heard a Council Leader describing that authority's difficulties with a street cleaning contractor.  Essentially, the Borough is not going to renew the contract which gives the contractor no incentive to perform its duties well.  It is apparently routinely incurring penalties for poor performance, and this is set to continue until the end of the contract late next year. 

When I think back to the debate on Brent's own street cleaning and rubbish collection contract, I am still bemused at why practical issues such as this did not seem to form part of the public debate. 

Saturday, 24 October 2015

The Curious Muddle of the Barham Trust

The minutes of the last Barham Trust committee are now available, and they make curious reading.  The main question before the committee was the letting of the former Community Lounge, a small building in the Barham building complex.  I have argued before that the Trust seem to be making heavy weather of what should be a very minor matter.  

Viewed in narrow terms, this process can be seen as having a successful outcome.  The revenue from ad hoc lettings of the community lounge has always been poor.  The new deal secures a small but regular income for the trust, and avoids the bother of administering the space.  Effectively, that cost will now be carried by the tenant.  All the sums involved are quite minor in the context of the Council's budget, and even in the context of the Trust's income (which is very small).

The difficulties come from not viewing the decision in those narrow terms, but with rather muddled political views.

It reads to me as if Cllr Pavey is bending over backwards to make special concessions to Friends of Barham Library as a community group.  Rationally, I find it odd that it should be considered as any more of a community group than Pivot.  I also find Cllr Pavey's contention that it is neutral frankly incredible.  I have known Paul Lorber, the driving force of the organisation, for years and he is relentlessly partisan.  From my knowledge of him, I think he is simply incapable of not being party political.  Of course, he will be constrained in this case by the operation of charity law, and possibly the terms of the tenancy agreement, but I have no doubt that he will seek to use the room as a base to get Liberal Democrats elected in Sudbury. 

This seems to be linked to Cllr James Denselow's views on "community libraries".  There is no logical reason why a "library" group should be considered any differently from any other community group.  Brent has literally hundreds of volunteer groups doing good things for the environment, sports, education, helping the vulnerable and so on.  It seems to me that this decision is based on a vague desire to appease this particular group simply because it has a track record of shouting particularly nastily at the Council.  Such an approach merely encourages groups to shout even more.

Deciding things according to fair criteria without special favours is actually politically smarter as well as fairer.


Cllr Pavey has got in touch to object to this post.  He points out that he awarded the tenancy to FoBL as the best of the two candidates in his opinion, which I am sure is so.  My point is that this whole business, which is about the award of the tenancy of a room for a small amount of money, seems to consume disproportionate attention, and this is because some of the volunteer library groups ar considered with far more attention than the many other voluntary groups in the Borough engaged in other forms of activity.  It was actually Cllr Denselow's comments to the committee that seemed to put this most strongly. 

On a second point, Cllr Pavey informs me that he obtained legal advice that there was no evidence that Paul Lorber would use the building for political purposes, which as he hasn't yet got into the building is not surprising.  If he does misuse the building, that will of course be a matter for both the Council (through its apparent exercise of public functions and as landlord) and the Charity Commission to keep an eye on. 

Friday, 23 October 2015

Plastic Bag Charges

Scotland has seen great success in reducing plastic bag usage through the introduction of a small charge.  This is not a surprise since Wales, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic had the same.  Whilst a minor step, it is an example of how we can reduce waste and this make our economy more sustainable.  I wonder if the Daily Mail will be apologizing for their prediction of chaos?

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Community Work Shops at Willesden Library

The Library at Willesden is now displaying the results of the community workshops that fed into the pattern of the mural art at the front entrance to The Library

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

More on Lewisham Libraries

I was interested to see a local perspective on Lewisham volunteer libraries here.  I have suggested before that Lewisham volunteer libraries do not work in terms of a public library service to the extent that some have hoped.  It seems to leave many local people dissatisfied as well. 

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Council Tax Support

I wasn't at the Brent Council Cabinet last night, but I was interested to read the report on the Council's Council Tax Support scheme.  The decision to retain this scheme more or less as originally designed suggests to me that the original design process was robust, which pleases me as I was part of it. 

The whole idea of the Council Tax Support Scheme was forced on local authorities.  Accompanied by extra cuts, and almost random changes in policy, it was setting Councils like Brent up to fail.  Successfully avoiding a legal challenge, and implementing such a difficult policy is a sign of the competence of local government officers in the face of what often appears to be deliberate sabotage by central government. 

Monday, 19 October 2015

Bridge Park Redevelopment

Good news is becoming harder and harder to find in local government, so I guess we should welcome the progress on developing a new sports centre at Bridge Park.  This idea has been kicking around for ages.  When I first heard about it was mooted as a thrid swimming pool for the Borough.  That looks as if it is likely to be overtaken by the new swimming pool at Moberly Sports Centre now.

Getting projects such as these to proceed in the teeth of the Tory Party's cuts is a really remarkable achievement, despite the various pragmatic compromises that have to be made to make them happen. 

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Cuts to Brent Youth Services

Although Brent Council is doing its best to put a good gloss on it, there is no mistaking the fact that Youth Services are seeing a massive cutback.  It is another example of how having something as a "statutory duty" does not really give the level of protection that people often assume. 

Fulfilling a legal duty can be done in a minimalist way, and that is the route that Brent has been forced to assume with youth services.  Effectively most of the duty is being outsourced, with the Council assuming more of a co-ordinating and supervisory role whereas previously it was a provider.  I suspect that if it were not for the conditions attached to the grant that rebuilt Roundwood Youth Centre back in 2010, it and all the other youth centres would simply be closed down.

The report is also indicative of the dangers around tendering processes.  Securing effective competition for a contract is by no means easy.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Libraries are Good for Your Health

CILIP has an interesting blog on how public libraries support peoples health here.  This is one of the beenfits of libraries that is not always appreciated, no doubt because it is hard to put a number on it. 

Friday, 16 October 2015

Harlesden High Street

Speaking to some one recently I learnt a Costa Coffee is due to come to High Street Harlesden, which sounds like a sign of the area's gentrification.  I hope that that kind of chain doesn't drive out the independent shops which give Harlesden High Street so much of its character.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Brent Library Visits at their Highest Level for Years

I thought it would be interesting to see a slightly longer term perspective on visits to Brent Libraries, so I have dug out the CIPFA figures.  The graph above shows that Brent library visits are now at their highest level since at least 2007/08.  The latest full year figure is 28.8% higher than the start of series.  The latest half year figures give me confidence that this year and the following year will be even higher, thanks largely to the success of Willesden Library

The earlier part of the series shows visit numbers bumping up and down, in a way that is consistent with a service muddling along.  It is interesting that the opening of the new library at Kingsbury in 2008 and of the extensively remodelled Harlesden Library in March 2010 don't seem to have made much of an impact on the overall figures.  That is quite different from the post 2011 experience where new facilities have driven the growth in numbers, although it is somewhat masked by the construction period.  Nonetheless, I find it striking that the closure of six libraries in October 2011 is followed by a growing upward trend in library visits.

The full table of figures is here:

Year Visits to Brent Libraries, 2007-2015 %Growth
2007/08                                                                                                     1,639,270
2008/09                                                                                                     1,573,326 -4.0%
2009/10                                                                                                     1,683,721 7.0%
2010/11                                                                                                     1,701,131 1.0%
2011/12                                                                                                            1,506,852 -11.4%
2012/13                                                                                                            1,526,095 1.3%
2013/14                                                                                                            1,654,807 8.4%
2014/15                                                                                                     2,112,149 27.6%

Monday, 12 October 2015

Audit Committee Mystery

Brent Council's Audit Committee can have much more interesting agendas than one might imagine.  The most recent, back in mid September, seems to have a curious omission in the published papers.  Although the agenda mentions the Islamia School, the actual papers appear not to have a report on the subject.  This is concerning as financial standards in Brent Schools have been a concern for many years.  Such concerns are surely best met by open and transparent discussion.  I am not suggesting a Copland style problem, but given the problems at several Brent Schools in the recent past, the issues have to be resolved as openly as possible.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Brent Library Torch Relay

Martin Francis informs us that there will be a torch relay today.  The theme is "closed libraries," and the organisers don't seem to have moved on from 2011.  I notice that one of the stopping points is Willesden Library at 11.30am.  This is of course an open library, which opens at 10am every Sunday morning as the old Willesden Library did not.  Of course if the organisers were to rely solely on Martin's blog for information, they could easily be forgiven for failing to notice any mention of the opening of a £10 million library in Willesden Green. 

Rather than touring round former library buildings, I would have thought it would be better to highlight Brent's improved libraries _ especially the refurbished Ealing Road library, the extensively improved Kilburn library and the entirely new Wembley Library.  Wembley Library is particularly well used, with 707,125 visits in the first half of the current year.  If that kind of number is repeated in the second half of the year, than Wembley Library by itself will have had almost as many visits as all twelve Brent Libraries had in 2011/12

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Solving Flytipping Problems

Brent has seen a surge in flytipping incidents recently.  I spoke to someone yesterday who gave me an example of how the new waste & street cleaning contract can make these things easier to deal with.

Under the former contract, there was a rigid system of zones with required number of cleans per week.  Most of the Borough fell under a "zone 5" (residential streets).  Town Centres fell into a different zone, and had a much more frequent cleaning service to reflect the much higher footfall, and therefore the higher rate of littering.  The disadvantage of this system for areas such as the streets off Ealing Road, Harlesden High Street and Willesden High Road was that those streets were counted as "residential" even though they had much worse littering than most of the Borough.  The intention of the new contract was to allow for a greater flexibility of response than the old.  

The example I was given was of Bertie Road just off Willesden High Road.  I go down this road quite frequently, and the corner of the High Road and Bertie Road has indeed been a problem for a long time.  The Willesden resident I spoke to assured me that it has recently improved which is down to (a) more frequent, responsive cleaning and (b) some of the flats above shops being provided with bins where previously they had none.  This seems to be the kind of incremental and piecemeal improvement which too often gets lost in political debates. 

Friday, 9 October 2015

Brent and Lambeth Libraries

I see Lambeth have been going through a major review of their libraries.  Their overarching strategy seems to be to concentrate resources on a smaller number of improved and more flexible buildings with good transport links.  In other words, very similar to Brent's Libraries Transformation Project.  Since Lambeth is also a densely populated urban authority with good transport links I would expect such an approach to be successful (as it has been in Brent).  Lambeth have the advantage that they can look to how libraries have progressed in Brent over the past four years to see how their approach might work.

Where they currently differ from the Brent approach is in their attitudes toward the sites that will cease to be proper libraries.  This must have been a subject of considerable angst I am sure.

In Brent we considered going down the Big Society route only to decide that it would not have been viable on the proposals put forward.  This was a major part of the legal challenge put against the Council, which the Council comprehensively won.  The issue is given extensive coverage on the very good Brixton Buzz blog site. 

Lambeth Council appear to be considering keeping the buildings to be run by Greenwich Leisure Limited (GLL) as "healthy living" centres.  I can see the logic of that.  It nods to the idea of libraries becoming more joined up with the public health agenda as indeed local government in general is becoming.  It may have benefits in bringing the sport service in Lambeth and libraries closer together.  It ensures the management is done by an established service provider that the Council has a long standing relationship with. It also, which I suspect is the main driver of the policy, keeps the buildings as Council owned assets.

That last point is one I see as wrongheaded.  I don't think that keeping buildings in Council hands should be an end in itself.  Building cost time and money to maintain and manage. If they are not being used for Council services, it would be better to dispose of them, and use the money to make the existing buildings fit for purpose.  Look at our experience in replacing the old Brent Town Hall Library with Wembley Library and watching the number of visits increase sixfold.

The dangers of trying to cling to the old buildings and use them to provide services are:
  • You start to design your services around protecting buildings rather than actually meeting community needs.
  • You may get into a procurement middle as in Lincolnshire and be subject to legal challenge.
  • You may give an unwarranted soft deal to one provider.  Brixton Buzz suggests that GLL is getting those buildings on a 25 year lease at a peppercorn rent.  If true that does not sound to me like a good use of a public asset.  I suggested in another case that such deals may not even be lawful for the Councils concerned to enter into. 
  • Anecdotally, I have been told that where inexperienced volunteers have taken over libraries, they often expect advice and support from the Council library service which under pressure Council services struggle to provide.  This can easily turn into a negative relationship where the staffed service feel that they are constantly having their energies draining away into supporting volunteers and that the Council's own services suffer as a result.  Conversely, the volunteers often feel that the level of support given is inadequate, leaving neither side happy.

This will be a potential danger in the recent decision to awarda contract to the organisation led by former Lib Dem councillor Paul Lorber in the Barham Park complex, although disposal of that building was never an option in that case.

One final point of interest is the proposal to adopt the Merton model of volunteers.  This retains Council buildings and some Council staff, but with a much wider role for volunteers.  Given the fashionability of volunteering in the library sector, I am surprised that it does not get more coverage as it seems more viable than the "Big Society" stand alone model.  

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Barham Saga

The final part of the Barham building complex is apparently to be leased this afternoon.  Reading the report, it sounds like the process has been excessively convoluted, which is very much in line with the whole saga

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Early Success for The Library at Willesden

The immediate success of Willesden Library in its new form is obvious from the early visit and loan figures.

Willesden Library Visits, July to September 2015 % Change
July                                                                          21,143 3.9%         
August                                                                          31,003 60.7%         
September                                                                          38,496 95.4%

The percentage change is compared to the same month last year.  The loan figures also show a big jump.

Willesden Library Loans, July to September 2015 % Change
July                                                                          10,972 21.0%
August                                                                          17,181 110.6%
September                                                                          18,219 110.6%

Altogether, encouraging early success.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Brent and Lewisham Libraries

Brent and Lewisham were the first two London Boroughs to seriously tackle their library strategy as the Tory/Lib Dem cuts began to bite.  The two took very different approaches, with Lewisham going for a volunteer or community based model.  I suggested before that Lewisham seemed not to have had the success that they may have hoped.  Nonetheless, they seem to be extending the volunteer model to more branches.  This is a fairly controversial route

Brent's more old fashioned approach of maintaining staffed, extended libraries at fewer locations seems to have resulted in higher user satisfaction and better performance in terms of key metrics

Monday, 5 October 2015

Brent Library Loans and Visits Up Yet Again

The latest half year figures for Brent libraries are now out.  Once again both loans and visits are up.  Loans for the half year ending 30 September 2015 were 532,951 (3.2% increase) and visits were 1,199,815 (12.4% increase).  They therefore follow the upward trajectory one might expect from the full year figures

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Charging for Plastic Bags

In Harlesden Tesco recently, I saw they have big signs up reminding people about the new 5p charge for plastic bags.  This already seems to work quite well in Scotland in reducing waste, which is an important part of the waste hierarchy concept that underpins most waste policy in Europe.  In the past, people seem to have been very resistant to abandoning disposable bags, but habits can change.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Stop the Tax Credits Cuts

Seema Malhotra MP has launched a campaign to stop the Tory cuts to Tax Credits this morning.  Just in Brent Central, there are more than 12,000 families claiming tax credits and they account for more than 17,000 children.  The average cut in income under the Tory plans is said to be £1,300/year.  That is a huge impact on a big number of people. 

I certainly hope that Seema's campaign forces the Tories to move on this.

Friday, 2 October 2015

New Photography Exhibition in Willesden Green

The art gallery at Willesden Library has a new photography exhibition officially opening tonight.  Following on from the Urban Loneliness exhibition

The piece I liked best was actually a piece of sculpture: