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Thursday, 31 March 2016

A Different Take on Willesden Green Library

There is an interesting take on The Library at Willesden Green in architects journal here.  I particularly like the acknowledgement that the Libraries Transformation Project was genuinely a positive reforming of Brent Library service, not just the kind of slash and burn that central government cuts are forcing on so many councils. 

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Local Welfare Assistance

One report worth looking out for in Brent Council is that for Local Welfare Assistance.  Local welfare assistance (and really why isn't it called local social security?) is help given to those in most dire need, often in emergency circumstances.  An example might be a woman who has just fled a violent husband.

As so often, it has been subject to cuts by central government which have then been cynically offloaded on to local councils in a effort to avoid blame.  As it is not a ring fenced area there may be a temptation for future reductions. 

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Privatised Environment Enforcement

I see that a proposal to have a private company enforcing anti littering and other environment enforcement rules has been called in.  In the past this area has caused controversy, although there may have been an element of political convenience to such objections. 

The proposed new approach goes in a rather more authoritarian direction than when I was Lead Member.  Previously, the Council put the emphasis on helping people reduce or avoid waste _ for instance through the bulky item service.  My other main worry about such a scheme would be whether the fines will actually pay for the service, and whether that may lead to perverse incentives to enforce where hard line enforcement is over the top.  Experience with parking and traffic fines is that they rapidly diminish as people change their behaviour.  If they don't diminish in the case of environment enforcement that would suggest that the policy is ineffective. 

Monday, 28 March 2016

Community Facility in South Kilburn

I am surprised that Brent Council's plans for a new community facility in South Kilburn have not had more publicity.  Perhaps because it is still something of an outline scheme people having really got a hold of what it is like.

The plan provides for 50% affordable homes, which is an unusually high proportion by today's standards.  Although I imagine "affordable" probably means 80% market rent.  I take it the private sale properties are intended to pay for the whole development. 

There is a lot in the report that leaves questions to be asked.  It makes clear that the current youth service arrangements are financially unsustainable, but does not make clear how to sustain them in the future.  There is a GLA grant which I would speculate comes with attached conditions, as the Roundwood Youth Centre did, but no indication of what they are.  The new centre appears to have a strong business orientation, which might dovetail with parts of Brent's library service, but there is no particular word on that.  This is disappointing as improving library accessibility in South Kilburn was part of the rationale for the refurbishment of Kilburn Library in the Libraries Transformation Project

Sunday, 27 March 2016

What is Brent Council's Position on Forced Academies?

The BBC reports cross party opposition to the government's plans for forced academies via a LGA letter.  That makes a lot of sense.  Academies don't appear to improve school performance.  They leave Councils without the tools to fulfil their legal duties such as providing school places, and the very opaque governance structure leads to all sorts of fears around the misuse of public resources. 

It would be good if Brent Council would actually take a public position on this issue. 

Saturday, 26 March 2016

An Unexpected Experiment at Kilburn Library

The fire a short time ago at Kilburn Library gives Brent the opportunity for an interesting experiment in library usage. 

The fire led to the disablement of the IT facilities at the library, so anyone wanting to use a PC has to go elsewhere (say) Willesden.  Therefore anyone still using Kilburn will be doing so for old fashioned purposes such as reading books or periodicals.  When the usage numbers come out it will be interesting to see what impact this will have on the usage and lending figures. 

Monday, 21 March 2016

What is the Story with Brent Housing Partnership?

The Kilburn Times has an intriguing story that Brent Housing Partnership is "in special measures".  I am not sure what that means, but the tenor of the story implies that BHP has been serious mismanaged.

This is quite a change from recent history.  When Brent Council had traditional style Council housing back in the late 1990s, its housing department was seen as quite good (although I have been told that that was rather flattering).  That is why is was allowed to become an ALMO and was given a huge grant to bring housing up to "Decent Homes" standard.  When Labour came back in in 2010, we were wondering what to do about housing and commissioned a study into efficiency compared to other areas.  As I recall Brent was judged as good as its peers at that time.

The current poor performance has therefore only developed in recent years.  The six month programme mentioned in the Kilburn Times story implies some fairly drastic shock treatment.  It would be interesting to learn more about what the failures are. 

Sunday, 20 March 2016

What Should be Scrutinised in South Kilburn?

It is widely suggested that the South Kilburn Regeneration needs more scrutiny, and this should be done in some sense by Brent Council's Scrutiny Committee.  No one seems to quite know how Brent might do this, through one of the two permanent committees recently set up or through an ad hoc body of some sort, but I think it hard to deny that some sort of public process is needed. 

As I pointed out some time ago a review of some sort is under way, but it all appears to be being done by officers behind closed doors.  I really would expect elected members to push themselves forward into this discussion. 

What should such a review cover?
To some extent, I would hope that question would be partly determined by the submissions to the review.  The South Kilburn regeneration feels at the moment a bit like something being done to South Kilburn rather than with South Kilburn.  In other words officers can give the impression that they are driving forward an agenda to redevelop the area at any cost.  I would like to see more of a debate from the people who live in South Kilburn and the Borough's elected representatives.

This should include the whole principle of what the regeneration is for.  The original plans for regeneration in South Kilburn date back many years, long before the housing situation became as grim as it is now.  I remember canvassing in South Kilburn back in 2003, and people even at time were fed up about the endless regeneration discussions that didn't seem to get anywhere.  The original scheme ideas were for a genuine mixed community in the Nye Bevan mould, this is becoming harder and harder to deliver as the present Tory government has redefined affordable housing as something that to many people is completely unaffordable.  As a result communities are being broken up and regeneration is increasingly a process of forcing poorer people out.

One useful function of a scrutiny investigation would be for the Council to investigate what barriers it can put in place to stop this "social cleansing" aspect.  This might include covenants on new housing, ownership structures that prevented the full sway of market forces (for instance, might co-operative forces help?) and a more active Council scrutiny of housing associations now that Housing Associaitions hav been nationalised by the Tory government as "public corporations". 

Monday, 14 March 2016

Brent Library Strategy At Last

As well as making half the savings were foisted on it by the last Budget process through efficiency, Brent Libraries are finally consulting on a strategy _although it goes under the title of a "cultural strategy" rather than a library one.  It is nice to see the new document acknowledges its debt to the Libraries Transformation Project

It has some interesting comments on "community libraries" i.e. volunteer libraries.  It states:

"There are a number of ways in which the council can offer support at no cost, one example being potential partnership arrangements with community run libraries. The council can offer advice on running libraries and provide information on external sources of funding for which community groups may be eligible to bid. Online access to resources could be made available and a deposit collection of books could be provided on a regular basis. Officers can also work jointly with community libraries to promote national and regional reading and learning events."

I am not at all sure that these suggestions would involve "no cost" at least if you consider the time and expertise of paid Council officers as being a cost.  Elsewhere in the country there have been problems with these sort of arrangement as the volunteer libraries have unrealistic expectations of the time and resources can be allocated.  The danger is that staff time sorting out what ever is going on in the volunteer libraries detracts from activity in Brent's statutory library service.  Given past enthusiasm by some of the library groups for litigation, I would think any ambiguity would be a cause of concern.Being subject to litigation can cause all sorts of costs and administrative problems even when the Courts decide entirely in your favour.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Activities in Willesden Green

Lots of activities in Willesden this weekend, with the unveiling of a new cat mosaic close to Sainsburys (below)

Also the start of Wordblend today, the latest project to feature in the art gallery in Willesden Library Centre.

Brent Libraries Half Way to Annual Saving

I am glad to see that Brent is expecting a genuine efficiency saving from the stock purchase arrangements before tomorrow's Council Cabinet.  However, that still leaves a hole of £80k per annum, following the abandonment of the ill defined Trust proposal.  I wonder where it will be coming from?

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Public Space at Willesden Library

I do hope that the pedestrianised area of Grange Road by The Library at Willesden (above) gets better used as the weather improves.  Potentially it seems a very nice space, and a big improvement on the area around the old Willesden Library

Friday, 11 March 2016

Fewer Cars in Brent

One detail worth noting in Brent Council's parking proposals is that 43% of households in Brent are estimated not to have a car at all.  This is often forgotten in transport debates in my experience, with many people speaking as if everyone travelled by car all the time.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Parking Proposals Return

I am glad to see that there is a new set of parking proposals coming before the next Brent Council Cabinet.  The manner in which the previous report was withdrawn sounds rather embarrassing.  The new proposals build on existing policies in a more logical sounding way, and avoid some of the peculiar anomalies introduced by inept political tinkering.  I do sympathise with current Lead member in trying to clean up the results of her predecessor's confused priorities. 

I may post again once I have looked at the details in greater detail.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

South Kilburn Under Scrutiny?

I had a conversation recently with some one who assumed that Brent's Scrutiny Committee was going to examine the case around South Kilburn and whether regeneration should continue there.   I believe it is more complicated.

I understand that the old Scrutiny Committee had agreed to examine the issues.  However, a recent Council meeting decided to split the Scrutiny Committee into two (incidentally, effectively admitting that Cllr Butt's  abolition of the scrutiny committees in 2014 was a mistake). 

The decision doubles the number of committee members, and at least one of the committees will have a different chair.  There is no guarantee that the items they choose to scrutinise will remain the same.  As a substantially different committee, they might well decide they want to look at different things.  As I have said before, I think there is a strong case for the issues around South Kilburn to be publicly debated.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Tricycle Theatre Funding Woes

I am sorry to hear of the funding woes at the Tricycle Theatre.  An organisation like the Tricycle is not only good in itself, it helps the whole Kilburn area.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Camden and Brent in Kilburn

Consultation is under way about creating a Neighbourhood Plan for Kilburn, encompassing both the Brent and the Camden sides of Kilburn High Road.  You can see the map here.  On the Camden side, the proposed area includes the Camden Kilburn ward and a good chunk of West Hampstead as well as the very top of Kilburn High Road.  The Brent part includes the corresponding side of the top of the High Road (in Brondesbury), the whole of the old Kilburn ward (excluding the southern regeneration area) and _ interestingly _ Willesden Lane Cemetary (which is actually in Queens Park ward).

I have been critical of the warm words about Brent/Camden joint working in Kilburn in the past, so it is good to see a possible mechanism to make it more effective.  The powers of the new body seem quite broad, although there seems to be little mention of money.  Nonetheless I would have thought there would be plenty of scope for enhanced co-operation on street cleaning, the Tricycle Theatre, the two Kilburn libraries and so on.

I am intrigued that southern Kilburn is excluded.  One reason may be that the issues around the regeneration there are felt to be very different to those for the areas either side of the High Road, but, especially if the current regeneration in South Kilburn is halted, the area may be left excluded from what could be a very positive development. Having said that, next week's Cabinet is recommended to proceed with demolition of various blocks at the southern tip of South Kilburn, just as if there were no review under way.  It would be good for there to be better public knowledge of what is going on. 

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Shakespeare in Willesden Library

I am glad to see that Willesden Library has managed a small display on Shakespeare, given that it is the quatercentenary of his death.

Friday, 4 March 2016

New Libraries

Yesterday's post on library figures leads me to re-emphasise the point that each library is unique and that some can be better than others.  A number of authorities are building new libraries, which no doubt they feel are better than the ones they replaced.  Here in Brent we saw refurbishments at Ealing Road library and Kilburn library, but also totally new libraries at Willesden and Wembley.  Wembley library has almost six times as many visits as the former Brent Town Hall library, making it the third most visited library in the UK, according to CIPFA. 

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Unflattering Figures

There has been a flurry of concern over the inadequacy of public library statistics following the publication of a short report by the House of Commons Library on the subject.  Some of the comments I have seen have been very critical of the Commons Library, which I think is rather unfair, since their report was only designed as a fairly slight update on the current situation not a major piece of work. 

The DCLG has had a short post dedicated to the subject of the figures, which are indeed inadequate.  Although central government has a duty of superintendance under the 1964 Act, it seems to have no systematic monitoring and to maintain no database.  Instead it relies on CIPFA figures, which are reasonably thorough, but generally released a long time after collection.  For more up to date figures, the only readily available source is Public Libraries News, which is run by a librarian in his spare time collating from media reports.  That seems a rather inadequate basis for the DCMS to perform a statutory duty. 

The Libraries Taskforce at the DCLG does seem to be finally looking at what figures should be collected.  Hitherto, there has been a strong emphasis on the number of libraries, which I would argue is misguided as it treats a tiny branch library as equivalent to Manchester Central Library, whereas I would see them as very different things. 

The CIPFA reports have also tended to emphasise the numbers of volunteers active in library services.  Many people are actually quite critical of the use of volunteers in libraries, seeing it as a form of job substitution and tending to devalue the work of paid library staff.  It also increasingly appears that volunteer run libraries are not as successful as some of their proponents had hoped.  The whole volunteer emphasis seems to me to increasingly look like a fad rather than an effective solution. 

There is also a debate top be had about how data from the PLUS survey should be best used, and whether loan and visit figures are adequate.  I have long thought that collecting figures on the number of computer log ins either from desktops or from mobile devices should be relevant.  I look forward to the Task force publishing their views. 

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

What Happened to the Kensal Rise Library Books?

Depending on what you mean by the Kensal Rise Library books, I may know the answer or not.  If you mean the Council owned books from when it was a library, the answer is that they were crated up and moved to Willesden Green Library, and they are now in circulation among Brent Libraries  and of course library users. 

The second sense that I don't know the answer to is the fate of the "pop up" library books that appeared on the site shortly afterward.  The pop up library appeared to be an initiative by the Friends of Kensal Rise Library (FKRL), although this was subsequently denied any involvement when they were asked to remove it.  It was taken down by agents of All Souls College in January 2014 when it was due to be passed to the new owner as a vacant possession. 

There were complaints at the time of the books being dumped on the pavement, and exposed to the elements.  Given that they had already spent a long period in an unheated structure half exposed to the elements and to insect life, I imagine that they were probably not in that great a state anyway, but they were taken away towards the middle of February.  I understand that they were stored somewhere in the Bridge Park Sports Centre.  I wonder where they now are, and what their eventual fate will be?