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Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Brent Library Activities

In Willesden Green library the other day, I notice that Brent Libraries have an impressive set of learning events coming up for June. 

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Brent Council Standards Committee Judgement

Two investigations are being launched at Brent Council around the circumstances surrounding the sad death of Tayo Oladapo. 

The first will look at the role of the officers, and the second relates to the role of Cllr Muhammed Butt.  The two are entwined, so it makes sense for both to be conducted by the same person.  I am gladdened to see that the investigator, Richard Penn, appears to be an experienced and credible person. 

Whether Brent's Standards Committee has similar credibility is now about to be put to the test.  I have suggested before that the record of the Chair does not inspire confidence.  All the members will have to ask themselves whether a member of the public knowing all the facts would believe that they are free from bias.

For Cllr Sandra Kabir, I think this may well lead to her withdrawing from the discussion.  As Labour Whip I would expect her to know what was going on in the Labour Group.  She effectively is part of the procedures for the first part of the enquiry _ how the Council handled the issues and whether everyone did all they were supposed to do.  If the report considers her behaviour, as it should, I don't see how she can claim not to be biased.  Similarly, in judging Cllr Butt's behaviour, she was either involved (and therefore compromised) or not involved (which would be shocking.

The other committee members will have to consider whether the nature and closeness of their relationships with Cllr Butt constitute a barrier to sitting in judgement on his behaviour.

Paving in Shopping Centres

In the Highways report, I remarked on the other day, it suggests that Brent Council is finally prioritising shopping area pavements.  This has long been a policy championed in Ealing, and probably helps enhance trade.  I don't see why it should not also apply to, say, street lighting. 

Friday, 27 May 2016

Managed Decline

Last Monday, Brent Council's Cabinet made a decision about future highway repairs which may go little noticed.  Paving stones are now being replaced with tarmac.  This is likely to be a way of saving money rather than for any other reason.  As the report says "existing budgets can be spread further". 

It is also rather startling that the officers have recalculated the necessary cost of repairs at £100 million compared to a previous figure of £38 million.  That is quite a leap.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Inept Procurement

Brent Council appears to have made some basic mistakes in the latest street lighting procurement.  This is not the first time that there has been an embarrassing climb down on a taken decision recently.  Rather than just isolated errors, I can't help but suspect that the Council has developed a culture that undervalues competence. 

Really members should have spotted these kinds of errors long before they get to formal Cabinet approval.  It now appears that the decision will be "delegated" to senior officers outside proper public scrutiny.  that is less than ideal. 

Monday, 23 May 2016

Roundwood Park

Brent Council drastically reduced its planting regime four years ago.  This was partly for climate change and partly for cost reasons.  One of the obvious places to potentially suffer would be the bedding plant areas by the entrance to Roundwood Park.  However, looking at this recent photo I took the weekend before last, it seems to me that they actually look quite good.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Keeping it Co-op

Good to see yesterday's vote to Keep it Co-op in Manchester.  I am told that the vote was 78% in favour, which is a hefty majority.  I hope this puts the proposal to bed.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Another Brent Council Investigation

Brent Council's Chief Executive has announced an investigation into the circumstances around the death of Cllr Tayo Oladapo and the strange way in which Brent Council seems to have handled it.

This is a scandal in which questions of timing are crucial.  Tayo's death was eventually announced by the Council on 11 March 2016.  The inquiry was announced at the Council AGM on 18 May 2016.  It has therefore taken the Chief Executive many weeks before concluding that an inquiry should be launched.  A cynic might wonder if the time is related to the appearance of the story in the Evening Standard

We have been here before of course.  In the notorious Rosemarie Clark case there was a prolonged period during what appeared to be efforts to suppress the story were made.  Once significant damage had been done, an inquiry was announced.  I was personally assured by Cllr Butt that the inquiry would deal with the case.  It turned out that the inquiry was specifically designed not to deal with it, which is said to have caused Cllr Mike Pavey some frustration.  In that case, the inquiry struck me as just a way for Cllr Butt to reduce the political heat.  Let us hope that this inquiry is not a similar tactic.

One of the things that guarantees that the Standards Committee inquiry will be inadequate is that it will only have a remit to deal with the Council.  I think both the Labour Party and the Labour Group need to take a long hard look to make sure that this kind of thing cannot happen again.

I say this as it seems to me that the whistleblower who revealed the whole thing to the Standard was put in a deeply unfair position, and the Labour Party (as an employer) needs to make sure it behaves properly towards its employees.  The Party and the Group also need to worry about accountability.  It seems highly likely to me that a lot of lying has been going on.  Leaving that to one side, Group officers appear not have been aware of what was going on when they really should have been.  To simply ignore all this is a deeply inadequate response.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Cllr James Allie and Ethical Standards

Cllr James Allie has been appointed to chair Brent Council's Standards Committee, which is ironic given his notoriously boorish behaviour.  This dates back many years.

I first came across him, when as Lead member he was invited to the first Scrutiny Committee I attended as a councillor. He was astonishingly rude _ speaking over people, claiming that they weren't allowed to ask him questions, refusing perfectly simple information.  He seemed to have no idea of how to behave normally.  Nothing of my experience of him in subsequent years has led me to change the low opinion I formed of him back then.  I imagine his chairmanship of the Standards Committee will simply be chaotic. 

What makes the choice even odder is his well known involvement in the Templar Vintners case.  This featured in both the local and the national press at the time.  However the most detailed description comes from a blog written at the time.  In that, and a subsequent blog, it appears that Cllr Allie's name was used to entice people into putting large sums of money into a fraudulent business. As the blog comments:

"A concerned client of Templar Vintners, who had paid for two cases – 2008 Ausone  and 2008 Lafite – received an email purporting to come from Allie but it is likely that it was sent by Moruthoane. It is thought that Allie had no active involvement in Templar Vintners and no charges were brought.
Clearly it was, at the least, careless and foolish of Allie to have  unwittingly allowed his good standing and reputation to help persuade potential customers to invest in a fraudulent scheme."
Anyone who follows the links will see an extraordinary story about how shamelessly people were ripped off in scams.  Cllr Allie does not appear to have been particularly alert in this saga.

It sounds like the monitoring of ethical standards in Brent Council will be handled with a light, even gossamer, touch.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Brent Council Whistleblowing

I referred yesterday to the Evening Standard story on the death of Cllr Tayo Oladapo.  This was followed up by Martin Francis, who published the whistleblower's email that was the main basis of the story.  Like Martin, I had been told of this verbally, but it all seemed very far fetched.  The email's author will be obvious to anyone who is active in Brent Labour Party from the content.  Fortunately, she can no longer be subject to Cllr Butt retribution as she is no longer employed by Brent Labour Party.

The timeline appears to be:

29 January 2016:    Tayo died after a long illness.
22 February 2016:  Brent Council extended the period during Tayo could remain a councillor without attending meetings for a further six months. 
2 March 2016:       Cllr Butt asks the whistleblower to investigate whether Cllr Tayo is alive as he believed that Tayo had died and "had been dead for about a month".
4 March 2016:       The whistleblower discovers that Tayo was dead by asking the hospital.  She informed the London Labour Party, who told Cllr Butt on 7 March.  This was the same date as a Labour Group meeting.  According to the whistleblower "But Cllr Butt did not even mention Tayo at this meeting. At this point I started to become seriously concerned that this extremely serious issue was not being handled appropriately."  I have since confirmed with some one at the meeting, that Cllr Butt simply told the Group that he had "lost touch" with Tayo.  This differs again from the line in the whistleblower's account, that Cllr Butt told a smaller pre-meeting that the London Labour Party had told him a Brent councillor had died but he didn't know which one (I find it hard to imagine why he didn't ask them for a name, a surprising lcak of curiosity).  At some point around this time the London Labour Party seem to have been given the impression that Cllr Butt had contacted the police, although he had not in fact done so. 
8 March 2016:     Cllr Butt is reported as telling another meeting where the whistleblower was present that Tayo was not dead.  
11 March 2016:   Tayo's death was officially announced.

It is hard to read this account without concluding that Cllr Butt was behaving in a seriously underhand manner that he involved giving radically different accounts to different people.  It raises questions for the Labour Party, the Labour Group and the Council.

The Labour Party
The Labour Party, as an employer, should worry about the position that the whistleblower was put in.  It sounds to me that she  exhibited significant moral courage in difficult circumstances, but she should have had more support.  

It also seems to me to give the regional party a major problem in working out how to deal with a senior elected figure who behaves in such a frankly bizarre manner as to deny that some one is dead when they have good reason to know that he was.  I don't think the Labour Party's procedures cover this sort of thing, probably because no one had ever imagined such a situation.

The Party should also be concerned that Cllr Butt had previously been in contact with the family, but they had decided to no longer communicate with him.  The Party  needs to find out why this is, and whether Cllr Butt has done something to bring the Labour Party into disrepute.

Finbally, I can't help wondering what the other officer, such as the Labour Whip, were doing in relation to this matter.

Brent Council
Brent Council should investigate whether the Council was knowingly misled on 22 February.  Although the sums of money are small, I would have thought that anyone who knew of Tayo's death but said nothing may have left themselves open to a charge of fraud.

I must admit I have never heard of a case as bizarre as this.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

More of the Same at Brent Council

Yesterday, Cllr Muhammed Butt was re-elected as Leader of Brent Labour Group, so we can all expect more of the same at Brent Council.  This is despite the late revelations in the Evening Standard regarding the death of Cllr Tayo Oladapo.  Cllr Maggie Mclennan is now Deputy Leader.

I am told that Cllr Sarah Marquis has scraped through as Planning Chair, so at least some one there will have some idea of what to do. 

Friday, 13 May 2016

Butt is Going Nowhere

Martin Francis has been posting a series of posts about the forthcoming Labour Group AGM. Ironically, these serve to underline the irrelevance of the kind of anti-Labour politics Martin represents.

One of the more curious features of Martin's posts is the idea that Cllr Muhammed Butt is about to be offered a post outside Brent.  These suggestions appear to emanate from those close to Cllr Butt.  For instance, here Martin suggests that Cllr Butt could be the Labour candidate in the Tooting by election. He says the suggestion comes from "Butt's relatives", which is interesting if true

Tooting By election
The by election shortlist has been drawn up and of course Cllr Butt is not on it.  Anyone who thought such an idea was a runner has little idea of how difficult it is to be selected as a parliamentary candidate in the Labour Party.  The Tooting election is likely to be difficult, and Cllr Butt simply doesn't have the skills necessary.  This was so even before he was forced to apologise and then resign over Equalities issues.  

Sadiq Khan
Martin has also been suggesting that Sadiq Khan might want to offer Cllr Muhammed Butt some sort of role.  Again, this seems pretty far fetched.  Sadiq Khan has run a professional campaign to get elected, and I expect he will operate in office in the same way.  That means vetting any applicants for jobs.  Both Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson were embarrassed by their failure to do this adequately.

It would be very hard for such vetting not to notice Cllr Muhammed Butt's various appearances in Private Eye.  Even if it did the London Labour Party has been forced to intervene in Brent Labour Group over the attempt to suppress Group elections,  the attempt to dictate policy on Council Tax rises, attempts to alter Labour Party rules without notification, claims that the Regional Director had approved rule changes when he hadn't, attempts to force by elections under the six month rule, and so on.

Possibly, Martin may have just contributed further to the reputational damage that Cllr Butt has suffered from the Rosemarie Clark racist bullying scandal, and the very odd goings on about the recent Planning Committee meetings on outline applications in Wembley.

Sadiq Khan strikes me as far too canny a politician to appoint some one who simply generates scandals and rumours all the time, and that is what Muhammed Butt does not seem able to stop himself from doing.  

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Return to Dunkirk

One of the Brexit campaign's main financial backers thinks leaving the European Union would be "like Dunkirk again".  Does he not realise that Dunkirk was a major military defeat which was followed by five years of war that ruined the country?

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Leadership Dysfunction

Some one asked me why Cllr Muhammed Butt is being challenged.  The email I reproduced on Monday only hints at the issues. 

I think there are probably a number of reasons, but I suspect the main one is simply his own dysfunctional behaviour.

As I pointed out on Sunday, he seems to have no regard for democracy.  Although he justified his defenestration of Ann John explicitly with the suggestion he would be more democratic, he has been far more dictatorial than any previous Council Leader.  My surprise is that so many of the councillors whose rhetoric is about democracy and independence have chosen to lie there and take it.

What is really striking about the Butt leadership, however, is his inability to work with other people.  Since becoming Leader he has got through three Chief Executives.  In the same four years, I think I am right in saying five finance directors have come and gone.  Indeed of those officers who headed departments when he became leader, none are left.  This is mirrored by a series of departures at more junior levels.

It is legitimate to ask why this is.  One reason I am sure sure is cronyism.  Cllr Butt seems to have little idea of the importance of expertise in managing the Council.  He himself seems to have no ideas or interest about how the Council is run or how it should develop, so perhaps that is why he sets such little store by those who do.  He also seems to have little idea of the importance of process.  As far as I can see, he thinks he should just give an order and everyone else should obey it.  In practice, that would often degenerate into one of his cronies telling him what to do and that becoming the Council position.

More seriously though is his inability to defend any consistent policy, or even to state what it is.  I have seen him say one thing in one meeting and then the opposite in the next meeting, and this is not occasional behaviour but his normal practice.

I have also known occasions, such as when he sought to have a full Council meeting moved as part of his vendetta against Cllr Van Kalwala, where he appears to have concealed his reasons from Council officers.  Indeed, I can remember a number of occasions when I was Lead member when he simply told me bare faced lies.  This is simply not a way in which the Leader of a Council can behave if the Council is going to function effectively. 

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Cllr Butt Spreads Division in Brent Labour Group (Again)

Martin Francis is giving a running commentary on the Brent Labour Group AGM here.  It is always worth bearing in mind Martin's long term hostility to the Labour Party when reading his comments.

Nonetheless, they are of interest.  Not least one speculates as to his sources.  In the past I am pretty sure he has been briefed by friends of Cllr Muhammed Butt, but that seems rather less likely in present circumstances.

On the whole I think the picture he portrays is likely to be fairly accurate.  Cllr Butt has certainly organised such slates in the past.  He did so unsuccessfully in 2012, but more effectively in 2013.  The suggestion that is seeking to divide the group by both age and race again rings true.  He tried the age card back in 2013, even though it was untrue.  I suspect that this time round most of the people he is trying to get rid of are actually rather younger than he is (Cllr Butt is 49). 

His conduct in the Rosemarie Clark case, where he put covering up for his cronies ahead of dealing with racist bullying, convinces me that he doesn't really have any concerns over the diversity of the Group.  I and others used Labour meetings to press him over the Clark case and were simply met with obfuscation.

However, I think, Cllr Butt is prepared to use race as a political weapon, which is a great pity at a time when Sadiq Khan has just triumphantly won the London elections by doing the exact opposite against a Tory campaign that used just those kind of tactics.

I hope Brent Labour councillors prefer the Khan route. 

Monday, 9 May 2016

Cllr Muhammed Butt Resigns from Equalities Role

Cllr Muhammed Butt has apparently just resigned from his equalities role at London Councils.  I look forward to his explanation as to why he is unsuitable for the London Councils Equalities role, but still thinks he should lead one of the most diverse local authorities in Europe.

Manifesto for Change

I have now been sent the text of the email that Cllr Mike Pavey sent to fellow Labour councillors announcing his candidature for Leader of Brent Council.  As I think it is of more general interest I reproduce it below:

Dear friends,

It's been a tough couple of years in Brent.

We have the most fantastic community in London. Warm, diverse and dynamic.

But it is under sustained assault from a truly heartless Government. 

What are we doing in response?

Too often Brent Council is cold and bureaucratic. 

The Employment Tribunal finding of race discrimination was a hammer-blow to everything we hold dear.

And too often our political response has been to blame the Government - but to offer no alternative, no resistance. 

We can do so much better than this. 

We've lost our sense of purpose. We've lost our conviction. We've lost our heart.

In two years we all face an extremely difficult local election. Now is the perfect time to refocus and reinvigorate. To make a fresh start. And that requires new leadership.

That's why I'm standing to be your Leader.

Our Group is divided and unhappy. I believe that's because we've lost sight of the Labour values which we all share: breaking down injustice, building equality. 

I want to lead us in developing a fresh new vision we can all unite around.

Let's then deliver this vision together. Let's stop moaning about the Government and actually stand up to them. 

No more submissive delivery of cuts: let's be a political, campaigning Council. Let's work with our community and other Labour councils to mobilise a major campaign to change Government policy. 

This is a huge change from where we are today. So we need a new kind of leadership. 

I will be more inclusive, more democratic, less fearful of debate.

These aren't just vague aspirations. I have a range of detailed ideas which I'm really looking forward to discussing with you in the days ahead.

Things can be so much better than they are today. 

Let's work together to build something we can all be truly proud of.

Let's reunite around our shared Labour values. 

Let's harness the immense talents of our Labour Group to become a political, campaigning Council. 

And let's choose a Leader with the skills and values to make it happen.

Best wishes,

Academies and Brent Labour Group

The government's u-turn over forced academisation is not all that it seems.  It really represents a slow down rather than a full reversal, as academisation can still be pushed through for schools are deemed to be "failing".  This is still very much a live battleground, but one on which Brent Council fails to have a clear position.

It is worth remembering that only four years ago Brent Labour Group pursued a policy to limit academisation.  This was a bit subtler than simply trying to say no to all academies.  It was based on an offer designed to maintain key features of the present system, whilst accepting the need to accept the government's language in order to pay for school places.

There has never been any formal abandonment of this position.  If anything it is more in line with the views of Lucy Powell than it seemed to be with her predecessors under Ed Miliband.  Yet Brent no longer seeks to prevent academisation.  For instance, Furness primary school has seen no efforts to prevent it becoming an academy.

I know that a number of members of the Group are unhappy about this, and I hope they consider this when casting their votes for the future leader of the Group.  I would also advise them to think about how trustworthy any pledges they recieve might be. 

Sunday, 8 May 2016

An Inevitable Challenge

Cllr Mikey Pavey is set to challenge Cllr Muhammed Butt for the leadership of Brent Council.  Although this was only announced on Saturday, it has been brewing for a long time.  Indeed at least one member of the Group has been going round for weeks that Muhammed Butt has asked her to stand as Deputy Leader, so it is fair to say Mikey Pavey has been forced into standing.

Cllr Butt often acts as if the Labour Party had no rules, but in fact it does.  That is why he was stymied in his efforts to deny the Labour Group the right to vote on a Deputy Leader.  He was forced to back down after an intervention by the director of the London Labour Party.  That is simply one of a number of occasions when Cllr Butt has sought to dictate to the Group, including refusing to raise Council Tax despite a vote by the Labour Group to do so, trying to make himself leader for four years without election (and in effect permanently), trying to suspend councillors without due process, manoeuvring to get councillors removed under the six month rule, bouncing the Group into abolishing Scrutiny beyond the legal minimum, and on numerous occasions seeking to deny members of the Labour Group the right to vote on who belongs to particular committees. 

The members of the Group will now have a chance to decide whether they wish this kind of behaviour to continue.

Process in the Labour Group
It may be worth noting the due process in Group meetings, as they appear to have escaped Cllr Butt and possibly others.  Votes are held of all the paid up Labour councillors and no one else.  The vote is by secret ballot, and follows the rules known as "exhaustive ballot".  This means that where there are multiple candidates (as I imagine there would be if Cllr Pavey becomes leader as far as the Deputy Leader post goes), the candidate with the lowest number is elimated and a new vote taken, until somebody get 50% plus one of the votes.

The Group officers (such as Leader and Deputy Leader) are voted on by the whole group, as should other positions such as the Planning Chair and the members of the Executive.  This also applies to the new Deputy Mayor, but the Mayor post is normally taken by whoever was last year's deputy without an election. 

The Scrutiny positions are voted on by the non Executive members (i.e. excluding the Leader, Deputy Leader, Executive and (I think) the Mayor and Deputy Mayor.

Since all these votes are by secret ballot, they can be expected to take a long time and be unpredictable.  My past experience of such elections is that many councillors promise their votes to multiple candidates.  I take it from Cllr Butt's attempts to suspend one of his critics and other rumours I have heard, that he is far from confident of victory. 

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Gloucester House

Out door knocking for Barbara Pitruzzella on Sunday one of the places we went was Gloucester House in South Kilburn.  It is almost entirely empty pending its demolition, which gives it a truly eerie feeling. 

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Growing Poverty as the State Shrinks

Patrick Butler points out that grants to people in terrible need appear to be going down despite poverty increasing.  He suggests the paradox is down to referring agencies dropping out of business.  I suspect that as far as Councils are concerned, there is also a certain amount of gatekeeping going on.  Councils are making harder for people to apply in order to keep a limit on their budgets.  This all helps create more poverty.

It also is a sign that the public sector and the third sector are not strictly separate, as David Cameron seems to believe, but interdependent.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Wembley Youth Centre

Saddened to see the Kilburn Times story on Wembley Youth Centre.  It is another case of Brent Council mismanaging cuts in services through a failure in democratic accountability.

I am sure that there is a reasonable case for the Council's decisions, as there was in the case of the Stonebridge Adventure Playground, but the current leadership is simply failing to make it.  The case in favour of the Council's decision relates to both revenue and capital spend.  In terms of revenue spend, the Council has chosen to deal with the enormous cuts to its budgets by withdrawing from youth service provision aside from the Roundwood Youth Centre, where there are special circumstances.  That is a tough and unwelcome call, but so a lot of the other cuts being made.  The case is one of dire necessity.  I will come back to how I think it could have been handled better below.

The redevelopment of the site for housing is easier to defend.  I don't know the details of the scheme but everyone knows London has a housing crisis.  Temporary accommodation will be allocated to those in dire need by definition, so that may all make sense as a way of using the site. 

Better Handling
What angers me about this all is that the group concerned seems not to have been given proper explanations of what is going on.  This has become a hallmark of the way things are done under Cllr Muhammed Butt's leadership.  Rather than saying to people, this is why things are being done, and changing the way things are done if necessary.  People are just left with silence and a denial of responsibility by elected members.  That feeds cynicism about local democracy.

This is a contrast with what happened to the same youth centre back in 2011.  Back then, it was once again proposed for cutting.  I recall attending the Wembley Area Forum in January 2011.  A large number of young people turned up to press the then Council Leader for the Centre to be kept.  That meeting and a subsequent meeting specifically on the issue led to a change in the policy and the life of the Centre was prolonged. 

Still further cuts after that time have now led to the demise of the Centre's Council grant.  A more imaginative approach would have been to proactively help the centre apply for money outside the Council.  Similarly, the Council has the resources to at least try to help the Centre relocate.  That is what an imaginative leadership would do.  I don't pretend that it would necessarily succeed, but it does not appear to have been attempted. 

Cllr Muhammed Butt has borrowed his immediate predecessor's rhetoric of a "dented shield" to protect local people (which originally came from Neil Kinnock), but he has signally failed to show the same activism in actually doing anything.