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Monday, 29 February 2016

Kensal Green Cemetary Wall

Passing by on the Number 18 the other day, I saw that the wall around Kensal Green Cemetary is finally being repaired.  It has been a good many years since its collapse. 

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Last Day for PLUS Survey

Today is the last day on which people can fill in the Public Library User Survey (PLUS) for Brent libraries. 

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Building on the Montrose Crescent Car Park

This approved new development in Wembley is likely to have a highly disruptive effect on Ealing Road as a shopping centre.  I do hope that the Planning Committee knows what it is doing. 

Friday, 26 February 2016

Local Authority Boycotts

The House of Commons Library, which provides a really excellent research service, has recently published a report on the whole local authority boycotts issue.  This popped up as in issue in Brent when the Public Realm Contract was awarded (eventually to Veolia). 

I got the impression at the time that many of the campaigners just didn't care whether what they were demanding was legal, so it is good to be reminded of the rules.

The EU Single market is essentially based on freedom to win and award contracts across national boundaries.  There are detailed regulations in place to ensure this happens.  Those regulations only allow companies to be excluded in very specific circumstances.  For instance if there are convictions for corruption, fraud or human trafficking, or for not paying taxes.  It is extremely hard, I suspect simply illegal, to ban a company because it has operations in a foreign country. 

In the Brent case, this is in addition to the many practical difficulties of the proposed boycott which I pointed out before

Thursday, 25 February 2016

PLUS Returns to Brent Libraries

As flagged, the new Public Library User Survey forms are now available at Brent Libraries.  Here is what the last survey said.  I wonder what will be the verdict in the next?

Monday, 22 February 2016

Consultation Principles

I am rather late in spotting the changes to central government's "principles of consultation".  I suspect whatever a local authority does will be criticised by some one who doesn't like the final decision _ as was the case in the Libraries Transformation Project despite the judge upholding it as a model of good practice.  I get the impression that central government would happily adopt less rigorous rules for itself than it expects of local authorities. 

Sunday, 21 February 2016

South Kilburn Regeneration Halted?

One of the less obvious confessions in the Brent Council Budget papers for tomorrow is that the regeneration of South Kilburn has slipped.  You can eventually find it in 14.5 of the report.  The report says that a "fundamental review" is under way and states:

"This review  will reconsider the fundamental approach, including whether it is better for the council to retain the South Kilburn Housing Assets, or continue to dispose of them."

I am sure this is driven by the policies of the Tory government, which are directly aimed at destroying the whole concept of social housing and forcing a large chunk of the population to live in slums.  In Kilburn, the Tory vision is also for most of the people living there to be forced out and the area to be redeveloped as entirely unaffordable housing.  That is a world away from the original intentions behind the South Kilburn regeneration of creating a mixed and balanced community.  It is entirely right that a Labour Council should reexamine the issue.

But where is the democratic involvement.  This is essentially a value judgement so why is there no mention of councillors being involved?  It is also of huge importance to people who live in South Kilburn who will be dramatically affected by a decision either way, so where is the public engagement? Finally, the South Kilburn housing stock in question represents about a third of BHP's total housing stock so where is the debate regarding BHP's future?

This sounds like a role for Scrutiny to engage the public and the many councillors who should be interested.  I hope the new Scrutiny Committee steps up to the challenge, and doesn't simply leave Council officers presenting a fait accompli to the public and their representatives. 

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Trouble Ahead for Brent Libraries

I am sorry to see that Brent Council's budget retains an expectation that the library service will save about £160,000 from its annual budget.  This is a significant sum that risks damaging one of Brent Council's great success stories.  What makes it more galling is that councillors have simply stumbled into this.  The proposed trust/privatisation was always foreseeable as a dodgy idea unlikely to lead to a real saving.  Now it has left a kind of zombie hole in the budget that is likely to be met by piecemeal savings directly cutting into frontline services.  

Friday, 19 February 2016

Making Allowances at Brent Council

One thing I didn't mention in yesterday's post on Scrutiny was allowances.  Debates about allowances always somewhat dispirit me as they often lead to accusations of selfishness on the part of the councillors, and I can't help but feel such accusations are sometimes justified.  Indeed one interpretation of the impetus for change in Scrutiny is that Cllr Muhammed Butt feels his political position is weakening following the departure of his key ally Cara Davani, the debacle over parking and his forced retreat on Council Tax, so he wants more allowances to buy people off.  

The weakness of such a view is that the Labour Group rules do not allow Executive members to vote on who is on the Scrutiny Committee.  This is likely to lead to an interesting Labour Group AGM (behind closed doors of course).  The more successful Cllr Butt is in packing the Executive, the less prospect he has of influencing the composition of the Scrutiny Committee, so (if members of the Group think it through rationally) the less likely they are to be bribed by him to support him as Leader.

Allowances are covered in the next Full Council in two different reports.  The expansion of Scrutiny to two committees departs from any previous practice in that members now get allowances simply for being members of a committee.  The first time this happened was through cross party agreement with the Planning Committee.  Given that that Committee was fairly onerous if you took it seriously, and the members did, I felt that was justified.   I am not so sure about extending allowances to scrutiny which should be part of what all councillors do rather than a "special responsibility."

The other major change is to the allowances paid to the Conservative councillors:

"Currently, the Scheme allocates a special responsibility allowance of £12,785 to the Group Leader of the Principal Opposition Group, namely the Conservative Group, and a second allowance to another member of that Group. It is proposed that the additional workload of the Group Leader of the Brent Conservative Group justifies a special responsibility allowance of £9,000 too. It is also proposed, however, that the second special responsibility allowance currently payable to the Deputy Leader of the Conservative Group be deleted."

Brent Tories really are a rather strange group, or rather pair of warring factions, and I am not sure they can justify any payment.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Brent Council Thinks Again on Scrutiny

Brent Council's next full meeting is discussing changing its scrutiny structure.  To those of us who have been interested in Scrutiny for a long time, it makes for interesting reading.  I imagine the officer who wrote the report doesn't remember the history of Brent's Scrutiny over the past few years.  Speaking of the abolition of the previous scrutiny system in 2014, the report informs that:

"The purpose of moving to a single Scrutiny Committee meeting on a frequent basis was to enable a more consistent, holistic and streamlined approach to all scrutiny activities commissioned by a single committee."

At the time, I was highly critical of the 2014 changes to Scrutiny and what I thought were the reasons for them.  At best, I think an officer saw it as simply a way to cut costs to a legal minimum.  I think the other aspect was a craven fear of scrutiny on the part of at least some members of the Executive. 

Entirely predictably, the report notes that councillor involvement in scrutiny has drastically reduced, the effectiveness of Brent Council in dealing with external partners is much diminished and I think the internal scrutiny of the Council's own operations has been made ineffective.  I didn't realise that, as the report informs us, Brent is the only Council to have gone down the route of having only one Scrutiny Committee.  Still let us welcome the fact that someone, somewhere has thought it through again and tried to come with a scheme that lets Scrutiny perform its functions: to engage the public, to engage with partners, and internal improvements to the Council.   

Monday, 15 February 2016

Volunteer Libraries in Sheffield

I see that volunteer libraries in Sheffield are seeing a huge fall in book loans.  I don't think this should surprise anyone.  With the best will in the world the volunteers won't have the expertise or the systems in promoting the libraries that paid staff do.  It is interesting to see how the same arguments get rehearsed.

Hard figures on volunteer libraries are hard to find, but as far as I can see transfer to some form of volunteer status is more or less always a reduction in the emphasis on books.  The local media tend to gloss over this.  I guess they don't want to sound harsh on people who after all are doing their best.  Another possibility which you can sometimes find is a denial of the validity of the figures.  Books are claimed as being taken out without being counted. 

Another common option is that volunteer libraries do "more" than traditional libraries, although whenever I see what activities are claimed they always seem to be the kind of thing Brent Libraries do all the time.

The Sheffield Star piece above is the first I have seen where one of the volunteers is arguing that libraries are in decline because of social factors like the rise of the Internet.  It sounds like a dangerous argument for a library advocate to peddle, and I don't believe it anyway.  It may well make the IT side of libraries more important, but that may well enhance the wider importance of libraries.  Of course, there is a national decline in usage in the UK, but I would say that is down to the financial crisis facing local government and the way that most Councils are choosing to hollow out their library services as that is politically easier than the option Brent followed with its Libraries Transformation Project.  Concentrating resources on a smaller number of very good libraries is politically harder, but it leads to greater usage and higher satisfaction levels.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Cllr Zaffar Van Kalwala Again

The story of Cllr Zaffar Van Kalwala reached a new stage recently, with the conclusion of a Labour Party disciplinary hearing.  It concluded that he should remain suspended from Brent Labour Group until 2018, which effectively excludes him from reselection.  He remains a member of the Labour Party.

On such occasions, people often speak on a person's behalf.  I understand that Cllr Van Kalwala had two well known Brent Labour activists vouching for him.  Speaking against was none other than Cllr Muhammed Butt.  The lengths to which Cllr Butt will go to exclude Cllr Van Kalwala strike me as extraordinary.

Cllr Van Kalwala was involved in a violent incident.  The original incident occurred in 2014 and was detailed by the indefatigable Martin Francis.  According to Martin, the victim had planned to take it no further, but Cllr Muhammed Butt apparently persuaded her to involve the police.  She seems to have done this without realising that a certain amount of publicity was bound to result.  For some time, publicity was limited _ and readers will notice even Martin chooses to refer to "Councillor X" in his report.

There followed a rather odd period when Cllr Van Kalwala was notable by his absence at Council meetings.  It turned out that he had been put under legal restrictions in attending Council meetings.   This came close to the point when he would have been automatically excluded under the "six month rule" where a councillor who does not attend a Council meeting for six months loses his seat and a by election is held.  Some of the oddity of this situation can be gathered from Martin's report of the Council Audit Committee.

That Audit Committee was one of the last meetings that Cllr Van Kalwala could have attended to avoid disqualification.  He had been expected to attend an earlier meeting of Full Council in November.  This meeting was mysteriously moved to the 8 December.  My understanding is that this was done at the request of Cllr Muhammed Butt.  It endangered the seats of not only Cllr Van Kalwala, but also Cllrs Duffy and Shahzad.

It is extremely odd behaviour for a Council Leader to apparently seek to create by elections within his own group, not to mention encourage a criminal prosecution against one of them.  The moving of Full Council led to interventions by various lawyers as well as the London Labour Party.  Eventually all three councillors were able to attend and thus prevent by elections in their seats.  In mentioning this saga, Private Eye claimed colleagues were "baffled" by Cllr Butt's behaviour.

One can only speculate as to Cllr Butt's motives. 

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Marketing Flats in the Former Kensal Rise Library

I see Uplift Properties have started to market their flats in the former Kensal Rise Library.  I hope the description of the properties is more accurate than their description of the history (closed in 2007?). 

Friday, 12 February 2016

Cllr Lesley Jones MBE

I bumped into Cllr Lesley Jones at Willesden Library last Saturday, who proudly showed me the MBE she picked up the day before.

Well done Lesley.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Hospital Trust Deficits

Barts Hospital Trust is making the headlines as having the worst financial deficit in the UK, but I notice the North West London Hospitals Trust (NWLHT) comes not far behind.  NWLHT run Central Middlesex hospital covering southern Brent.  It sounds like the sheer scale of the cash crisis may all sorts of knock on effects.  The Guardian article above talks about suppliers not being paid.  The last time there were serious difficulties in the Trust, Brent Council complained bitterly that the Hospital was "cost shunting" _ trying to shift patients on to local authorities for financial rather than medical reasons. 

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Betting Shops on Kilburn High Road

Well done to Tulip Siddiq MP and Camden Council in their efforts to prevent yet another betting shop on Kilburn High Road.  These shops suck money out of communities and often prey on the most vulnerable.  Brent is one of the most affected Boroughs in the Country. 

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Brent Council Libraries Strategy

The abandonment of Brent Council's plans to spin off or whatever the Libraries Service leave it trying to find £160k savings with no idea how to do it.  It should surely look again at a new library strategy to work out how to achieve this, or indeed to accept it can't at acceptable cost. 

Monday, 8 February 2016

Brent Council Performance Criteria

Looking at Brent Council's performance criteria, I see that the only library measure is satisfying reservations within seven days.  What an odd choice of benchmark, compared to visit and issue numbers or the opinions of the users of the service

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Social Value and Community Asset Transfer

Tomorrow's Brent Council Cabinet meeting has two interesting items on Community Asset Transfer.  One is to the Kilburn Cosmos in Gladstone Park; the other is for a pavilion in Northwick Park.  Both involve Community Asset Transfer.  Part of the documentation in both cases is being kept secret. 

The policy seems to have a bearing on the possible fate of the former Preston Library.  The policy states:

The CAT policy is underpinned by five principles:

1.      1.  Community asset transfers will support the priorities of the Borough Plan;
2. Organisations  that benefit from the transfer need to be credible, constituted, financially viable with a clear business case;
3. The services and building need to promote equality and community cohesion;
4. All opportunities should be advertised;
5. Buildings should be transferred on a repairing leasehold basis.

 An application under this policy might simplify some aspects of an attempt to take the former Preston Library out of the hands of the Council.  However, I don't think it would do away with potential problems.  On the first criterion, the main group interested in the building argues it should be a library, which is not remotely in line with the Council's successful library strategy.  The second ground would certainly have posed severe problems for the group at previous times, although I dare say they have formalised their governance rather more by now.  The "clear business case" would probably still be an issue since their core purpose has always been as a library, which conflicts with the Council's evidence base over the need for services.  Equality and community cohesion should provide no problem, although being expected to meet these criteria was actually a grounds of challenge in the Bailey case on Libraries.  Advertising the opportunities might lead to quite a lot of competition for the building as I have suggested before.  The final condition, a repairing leasehold, sounds reasonable.

It does, however, make me wonder about the "peppercorn rent" that the Preston Library group thought it had.  Would they have understood it to include the cost of repairs, I wonder?  Presumably the wider fiducary duties of the Council still apply in all these cases, so it is worrying that there appears little detail on this in the report.  Possibly all this is covered in the secret documents, but the public documents carry little reassurance that the Council is monitoring what it is getting or that it has a clear valuation of the value of the assets.  I fear that the vague phrase "social value" can cover all sorts of well meaning but misguided thinking. 

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Computers at Willesden Library

In Willesden Library last Sunday, I noticed that yet again the One Stop Shop computers lay unused.  If no one wants to use them for that prupose perhaps they should just be added to the general computer pool?

Friday, 5 February 2016

Spending Other Peoples' Money

Brent Council is considering on Monday a report on spending planning gain monies, which amount to £3.8 million in this financial year.  This is the funding that property developers pay the Planning Authority to offset the social impact of development.  Brent takes a very centralised approach to this, in contrast to other Boroughs that spread decision making to all the Councillors in the Council.  I am not sure that having the Cabinet nod through officers' recommendations in this way really provides the best democratic scrutiny or secures the most effective outcomes.

If you read the detail of the report there are some quite major decisions being taken.  For instance, the report states that the entire education reserve has been spent.  How much scrutiny did that get?  I am not saying that that was necessarily a bad decision given the needs of Brent, but it should surely be made in a more transparent way.  All of these themes" will have multiple projects that are being accepted or rejected.  Effectively, who is really making the decision in each case and why?  Again, the report states that Wembley gets the lion's share and Church End the least.  I suspect there are good reasons for that, but should they be a bit more obviously in the public domain?

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Borrowing and Investment at Brent Council

An interesting development in Brent Council's forthcoming budget thinking lies around borrowing.  The report suggests linking Capital borrowing to potential savings.  There have been efforts to systemise the Council's budgets in the past, notably in the Highways Asset Management Project.  A more extensive look may well be a good idea.  However, it may involve some controversial decisions.