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Sunday, 31 January 2016

Public Library User Survey Returns to Brent

I have suggested before that the Public Library User Survey (PLUS), organised by CIPFA, is one of the most effective means of tracking the effectiveness of a library service.  I learnt at the Willesden Library meeting on Tuesday that Brent will be having a new survey in the week beginning  22 February, which is slightly more than three years after the last.  I am confident that Brent Libraries will contin ue their upward progress, especially in the new libraries of Wembley and Willesden. 

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Marketing Willesden Library Centre

I have mentioned before that Willesden Library will not be functioning properly until it has a cafe up and running.  This has turned into something of a saga, which illustrates some of the dilemmas of effective procurement.

The initial brief, partly derived from comments at a previous Willesden L:ibrary users group, was to have a small local business take over the cafe.  The negotiations fell through at a very late stage.  Hence, there is still no prospect of a cafe opening soon.

The whole issue has now been rethought, and it is suggested that the cafe franchise be bundled into looking after the cultural activities as well.  The Council have long had a plan that an external provider should market the spaces in the Centre.  Models for this kind of thing exist with The Albany in Canada Water and the Arts Depot in Barnet.  However, it is quite a new idea and there are only a limited number of providers so the competition for such a contract, and the evidence for assessing it is likely to be weak.  Bundling a cafe in with hiring the spaces should exploit a synergy between the two.  The events attract audiences who the cafe can sell to, and the cafe makes the events a nicer experience.  Once the cafe is up and running it should also make the library itself more attractive as it has at Wembley

However, putting all this together is unfortunately taking a long time, and it looks likely that the original emphasis on having local business involvement will fall be the wayside.

The process also explains the mystery of the Long Room, which remains closed off.  That had considered the right site for the Customer Service offer at Willesden, but customer services decided it was better to do everything in Wembley.  On the whole, I think that was the right decision.  Their original estimate of demand overlooked the extent to which people are increasingly doing things online.  There just doesn't seem to be enough traffic to cater for two different centres.  Indeed I have speculated whether the PCs left for this purpose in Willesden should just become general access

How that eventually gets used, whether as a successor to the Library Lab for example, remains to be seen, but it would be good if the space could be accessed temporarily in the meantime.  I was in the Library last Sunday and it was so full that the only workspace I could find was in front of a PC.  Since I had my laptop, I felt slightly guilty about using that space even though there were plenty of desktop PCs available.  I think the designers of the Library hadn't fully thought through how more and more people use the Library just for accessing WiFi with their own devices.  Opening the Long Room and putting some tables and chairs in it would be as good a use as any. 

Friday, 29 January 2016

Willesden Library Users Group

On Tuesday, I went to a meeting of Willesden Library users, which was full of interest, and rather different to some of the previous meetings I have been to about Willesden Green Library.  With one exception, the leading lights of the anti-Library campaign were absent.  I guess now it is there, they want to protest about other things.  They have often given me the impression that the experience of protest is more important to them than any actual objective.

The atmosphere on Tuesday was quite different.  Certainly there were niggles, such as the IT not always working well and the limited signage, but overall it was a group of people who wanted the library to work rather than people who wanted to throw rocks.  

Anyway, the meeting had quite a lot of information, much more than I can cover in one post, so I will be doing several on this subject over the next few days.

One thing to look out for is that Brent is launching a new Cultural Strategy from 1 February.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Monitoring Volunteer Library Performance in Brent

One advantage of the proposed rate relief that has been rather indiscreetly leaked about the former Preston Library is that it will give Brent Council a chance to develop a regime for assessing what a volunteer library is actually doing.  I have remarked in the past that volunteer libraries seem to have had remarkably little scrutiny in this regard.  Cheerleaders such as Ed Vaizey have simply assumed a volunteer operation can do as much or more than a professional library service without real evidence either way. 

The terms of the case for NNDR relief seem to bind the Council into making some form of assessment before deciding top grant relief.  Since the relief is time limited it will have to be repeated every time the relief is considered for renewal.  Indeed it may be that Brent officers have already developed a model, given the Cabinet decision on 20 January.  In any case if the group returns to the building, a big "if" I have previously argued, an assessment for any tax relief would have to be made.

A checklist of factors to consider is on page 94 to 95 of the Cabinet papers.  My experience of the Brent library groups in general was that they were quite resentful of this sort of scrutiny.  For example, the Council's decision to base its assessment on whether equality needs were being met was actual one of the planks in their unsuccessful legal challenge

I think the Council might find it hard to justify the NNDR decision as relieving the Council of the need to provide library services or as necessary to supplementing those services, since Brent Library services can be plausibly be argued to be at their most successful level ever following the implementation of the Libraries Transformation Project.   Why more public money should be thrown into a service that is already greatly improved, and in a way that is drastically different to the current publicly run service defeats me.

The Council's requirement that the organisation "demonstrate a major local contribution" would require a far higher level of scrutiny than any of the existing volunteer libraries have hitherto undergone either in Brent or in most other authorities.  I am not sure whether the organisation has a full constitution or audited accounts, but in any case it will need them if it is to successfully attract another of the Council's conditions.

All this should have been before members when they made the decision to grant NNDR relief.  If it was not, it will be far harder for Brent to resist calls by other organisations for similar relief.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Moberly Sports Centre Redevelops

Moberly Sports Centre is finally seeing its redevelopment under way in February.  This will take about two years.  As part of the planning permission Brent successfully negotiated that Brent residents would get access to the facilities on a similar basis to Westminster residents. 

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Financial Incoherence at Brent Council

The recent decision to introduce NNDR for a specific organisation that I blogged on yesterday also raises questions about the coherence of Brent Council's whole approach to its finances.

From 2010 to 2013, the Council under unprecedented pressure from central government cuts pursued a general policy of minimising liabilities, raising income as much as possible and cutting costs.  At the same time it was able to pursue a number of policies to improve services, but the general emphasis was on tightening financial control.  As lead member for finacne and then Leader during this period, this policy presumably commanded Cllr Butt's acquisance.

From 2012/13, things all seem to have got more wobbly and strange.  The Council Tax freeze was rigidly maintained for most households until this year, despite the majority of the Labour Group apparently voting for the opposite.  At the same time a Council Tax Support regime was introduced that did raise Council Tax for many thousands of residents, who by definition were among the poorest in Brent. 

The picture gets even odder when one thinks about parking charges.  In the earlier period, there was a fairly strong environmentalist theme to the Council's parking policies.  This included the introduction of emissions based parking charges, which is the only time I ever knew Cllr Butt argue against a policy to my face, and a major piece of work to simplify the numerous parking instruments of the Council.  At the same time, there were a number of progressive measures to encourage sustainable transport.  In about 2013/14, this changed as a period of free parking was introduced including a pre-Christmas period of free parking for those areas fortunate enough to have Council owned car parks.  Quite how this squares with the general thrust of Council policy to discourage car use isn't terribly clear.  More recently still, there has been a decision for a massive hike in charges for people who live in controlled parking zones.

The whole impression I get is of a series of independent decisions taken without any underpinning philosophy, as indeed a recent Scrutiny report suggested


The anonymous commenter below is mistaken in a number of ways.  I haven't published any comments on this post because I haven't been sent any.  Secondly, the organisation mentioned does not have automatic tax exemption.  If it did, it not have to apply for tax exemption and Brent Council would not have to make a decision about whether to give it.  My concern is that all groups should be treated equally.  If one group gets an exemption because it meets various criteria, those criteria should be made public for other eligible groups to get the same thing.

I note that the Preston group refers to itself as a charity, but it does not give a registered number, which I would expect a normal charity to do. 

Monday, 25 January 2016

National Non Domestic Rate Relief

Cllr Roxanne Mashari has tweeted that the Friends of Preston Library have been awarded National Non Domestic Rate (NNDR) relief, presumably at the last Brent Council Cabinet meeting.  Traditionally, Brent has shyed away from this kind of award, other than when promoting the London Living Wage.

The main reason for this is that if you start giving one organisation a discount, where do you stop?  The report gives general issues to consider when making a decision, but not the reasons in this particular case.  Indeed, in tweeting about one particular organisation's tax affairs I suspect Cllr Mashari has broken her duty of confidentiality.  In this case I think that is beneficial since transparency is very important when favours are being handed out.  there really should be a public explanation as to precisely why this organisation is considered deserving when most others are not. 

The relief appears only to be granted for the period that the Friends were actually occupying the building.  I have suggested before that a longer term arrangment would lead to a number of problems.  These become worse if the building is considered an asset of community value.  Given the circumstances of Cllr Mashari's "offer" to the Group just before the 2014 elections, I would have thought a clear public explanation essential. 

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Curious Tales Exhibition at the Brent Museum

Good to see another exhibition coming forward at the Brent Museum in Willesden Library Centre.  This involves an exhibit from the Horniman Museum.  The Curious Tales exhibition features the Chinese Zhenwu figure, as part of a loans project funded by Arts Council England.  I realise some people are suspicious of using libraries to promote arts, but I think this has been done very successfully in Brent, most recently with the very high quality Wembley Art Society exhibition in Willesden.  As in that case, I hope the Library sets up a related book stand to help draw more people into library use. 

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Bullying at Brent Council

Martin Francis has uncovered some interesting information about bullying at Brent Council, which has he said was highlighted by the Cara Davani shenanigans.  I think it highly likely that there are many more cases than the ones mentioned as going all the way to an employment tribunal is a step only a relatively small number would be prepared to take _ rather than, say, quietly leaving.  It would be sensible if the Council set up an enquiry into preventing bulling in future.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Lack of Leadership

As predicted, Brent Council is proposing a Council Tax increase this year.  There are no plans to cushion people claiming Council Tax Support, which adds to the general feel of rudderlessness at Brent Council.  The Scrutiny Committee has picked up on this lack, saying

"Our main broad critique of the Package is that it lacks a common thread or philosophical story.  The package instead appears to be a collection of disparate ideas brought together in order to reach the final figure required."

Ultimately, that is a failure of political leadership.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Brent Council and Pub Protection

Some time ago, the campaigners around The Queensbury started a call for Brent to adopt a "pub protection" policy.  This would not have had any actual effect on The Queensbury decision, which involved retention of the pub, but it is commonly advocated in other authorities.  The Queensbury campaigners, however, claim to have encountered considerable obstruction by the Council.  This is despite their apparently being told by the Council Leader that he supported a pub protection policy.  I found it puzzling that, having apparently promised support, nothing was done to create such a policy _ which has certainly been done elsewhere.

What I had forgotten was the The Falcon Pub in Queens Park.  Brent is very keen to develop this site as part of the South Kilburn regeneration.  In fact, without that land, the whole development would grind to a halt across the whole of South Kilburn.  This gives an extra perspective as to why Brent Council has no great desire to strengthen planning protection for pubs. 

Monday, 18 January 2016

Scrutinising Waste Solutions

Martin Francis has picked up on my post about changes to the Scrutiny report recommendations.  The remarks that were critical of the then lead member didn't refer to me but to Roxanne Mashari, who did indeed appear in photo opportunities in a campaign targeted at prosecuting residents for various environmental offences.  

I was involved in a different campaign, related to trade waste, which has subsequently discontinued.  I am not sure why.  The figures indicate that it was effective in reducing waste, but I know that it was also labour intensive so it may be that a cost/benefit analysis showed that resources were better used in other ways.

If so, I have no problem with that.  The advantage of being transparent with such things is that if a given scheme doesn't work, lessons can be learnt and a new solution can be attempted.  That kind of pragmatic approach is more productive than just deleting unfavourable references.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Willesden Library Opening Hours

I am glad to see that Martin Francis has finally noticed that there is a new library at Willesden Green despite his determined campaign against it.  It is a shame, but perhaps predictable, that his attitude should continue to be negative and critical.

However, it is a fair point that longer opening hours would be a major benefit, and would not necessarily be expensive.  The room hire should be able to offset some of the cost, and it may be possible to charge higher rates at peak times such as Friday and Saturday evenings.  It would also benefit library usage, even if it was only a form of limited availability such as the unstaffed hours at Wembley Library on weekday mornings. 

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Mysterious Change in Scrutiny Wording

There is a curious change in the forthcoming Brent Council Cabinet report on fly tipping (which the Council now want to call illegal rubbish dumping (IRD) on the erroneous supposition that that term is jargon free).  The Cabinet report follows a Scrutiny report which said, among many other things:

"Future publicity about IRD should be continuous, mainly word-of-mouth and not confined to one-off PR campaigns. The last major PR campaign in 2013 involved large, difficult-to-read signs under which rubbish was dumped. It also saw photo opportunities to show the lead member was determined to deal with the issue, but officers confirm that it had little tangible impact on levels of IRD."

The wording in the Cabinet report, which generally follows the Scrutiny Group's wording closely, becomes:

“Future publicity about IRD should be continuous, mainly word-of-mouth and not confined to one-off PR campaigns.”

Am I alone in finding this change of wording interesting?

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Brent Council Tax Rise Likely

I hear that Brent Council is likely to go for a Council Tax rise this year.  This has seemed to me to be the only sensible course for some time.  The rise will still only make a modest contribution to protecting Council services but it is better than nothing. 

It also helps to protect the longer term finances of the Council.  Each year the Council Tax has been frozen, the base revenue of the Council has been reduced not just in this year but for future years.  With the government talking about abolishing central government grant altogether, a continued freeze would simply run the Council into the ground.

One might ask why Cllr Butt has been so bitterly opposed to a rise for so long.  Even to the extent of ignoring the vote of the Labour Group altogether, which was such an undemocratic measure that I am sure no previous Labour Group would have stood it.  I wonder whether it will come back to bite him in May.

Certainly, his reasons can not have been to protect vulnerable residents, since he was fully behind the Council Tax Support Scheme which inevitably hits those least able to pay.  Indeed the rise for those residents in the first year was so large it would have been impossible to raise the Council Tax by that much across the tax base as a whole. 

Looking at future rises, it would be interesting to see a graph of what level the Council Tax would be is it had increased at the rate of inflation since the last Council Tax rise in Paul Lorber's last budget back in 2010.  That might give some sort of benchmark as to what is reasonable to charge people.  This is necessary as there is always a suspicion among the public that politicians simply want to ram up taxes and charges as much as possible.  Certainly as far as the Council Tax goes, this has not been true, but recent decisions on parking charges in CPZs in Brent probably haven't helped the perception.  Indeed I find that people generally think the Council Tax has been rising even though it has been frozen.  The Council really needs to reassure the public that rises are considered and value for money.