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Friday, 30 September 2016

Your Own Bags

It is good to see that more people are carrying their own shopping bags.  This was exactly what the plastic bag charge was designed to achieve.  It is a small step in changing behaviour, but there is much further to go.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Declining Standards at Brent Council

Last week's Standards Committee led to no further action.  More surprising was the behaviour of the many councillors who apparently attended.  They are reported to have heckled the Committee as it went about its business.  I have verified that John Warren's account is more or less accurate.

Of course, we have seen poor behaviour at Brent Council meetings before, including the forced move of the meetings, but this is the first time that elected councillors have engaged in such wrecking tactics.  Ironicqally, it sounds as if the councillors breached the Code of Conduct at the Standards Committee itself.

It is a new low in Brent Council's decline as an institution.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

A Sorry Mess at Barham Trust

The Barham Trust minutes are now out and confirm what I had already heard, that the councillors on the committee weakly allowed Paul Lorber to browbeat them into giving him rent free space after he had previously agreed to pay rent on it. 

It is interesting that that Mr Philip Bromberg of the Preston Library group also spoke.  Of course he has no direct interest in the Barham site, but I have no doubt he will use the rent free access for a group at Barham to argue for rent free access for his group at Preston.  It would be greatly surprising if other groups don't argue for rent free arrangements for themselves in other buildings.  Thus, the Barham Trust Committee is setting up a situation where groups are given privileged access to Council buildings at taxpayers expense, and public services are cut further as a result. 

Any attempt to resist such pressures will be met with accusations of bias, and of course the number of groups that might make such a demand is practically limitless.  Indeed groups that currently pay the Council rent might well ask why they are doing so. 

The consequences of the decision are therefore considerably more extensive than just the Barham Trust, and likely to lead to political controversies in future. 

As well as being bad budgeting and bad politics, I suspect it is also bad law.  As a loss making Trust, cutting the Trust income without any indication that you are doing so for the objectives of the Trust probably puts the councillors in a dodgy position legally.

What a sorry mess.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Graffiti Returns to Kensal Green Tube

I am saddened to see that graffiti has reappeared above Kensal Green station.  Previously this stayed up for years before removal.  I hope it goes quicker this time.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Monitoring Community Libraries in Brent

One of the many problems thrown up by Cllr Butt's suggested of community libraries is the whole idea of monitoring.  Many people seem to think that Councils should just hand out money to worthy groups and assume that they use it widely.  Such an approach is long discredited as potentially leading to corruption or at least a waste of money.  There are dramatic cases, such as Kids Company, where this was disastrous on a grand scale.

A more modern approach is to demand some kind of monitoring.  In Brent, these are normally called Service Level Agreements, and are effectively contracts.  Money is paid to a group in return for certain objectives being achieved.

My experience of dealing with the various library groups during the Libraries Transformation Project is that this kind of thinking came as a great shock to them.  One of the grounds of their unsuccessful legal challenge to the Council was that they had no idea that this sort of thing might be expected, an idea that the Judge rejected.  In his words (paragraph 91):

"I am satisfied that any group wishing to run a library, whether at its own expense and even more so if at public expense to some degree, should have realised that its experience and financial capability was an issue to be addressed in the consultation process. I do not think that any failing on the part of proposers to know what case they had to meet can fairly be laid at the door of the Council."

My experience of dealing with the library groups in Brent is that they are very dismissive of any such monitoring, financial or otherwise.  I have repeatedly heard them dismiss visit numbers as a criterion, book issues and even the view of library users.  I have never heard any of the groups' suggest alternative measures.  I suspect this is because volunteer libraries just don't seem to perform well on any of the measures that normal public libraries regard as standard.


I have responded to the comment below here.  

Monday, 19 September 2016

More Library Bumbling by Butt

I mentioned on Saturday the potential danger of a "community library strategy".  This is the sad, but predictable, result of the way Cllr Butt has been stringing the Preston group along for years.  Indeed, it my just be yet another stage.

What the Preston group really want is to be given the Preston Annexe for free.  As I have explained, that is contrary to the Council's fiduciary duty, and is now made even less possible as a result of its Asset of Community Value status.  Cllr Butt probably doesn't care about either of those in themselves, but I suspect he would be worried about getting caught disregarding them.

There is a fundamental mismatch between the expectations that Cllr Butt encourages and what Brent Council can legally deliver.

The greater danger from his various manoeuvrings is that a Dollis Hill House type situation arises, where huge amounts of officer time and money are spent fruitlessly, and distracting from the challenging but successful job Brent libraries are doing in improving services despite budget cuts.  In other cases elsewhere in the country, this has resulted in the Council staff feeling that they are being forced to devote inordinate time to advising volunteers on how to run services, and the voluntary group resenting what they perceive to be a lack of support.  Indeed many people think that volunteer libraries just can't be made to work as a long term solution.

Certainly, when the Council considered the idea of this kind of "Big Society" approach, it not only decided none of the solutions were viable (a decision that Cllr Butt endorsed at the time), it was actually sued by the groups concerned

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Butt Complaint

The complaint into Cllr Butt breaching the Local Government Code of Conduct has been published.  The full investigation can be found here. The rep[ort to the Standards Committee is here

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Future Warning for Brent Libraries

A little noticed part of the Cabinet papers on Tuesday was the report on library performance.  It mentions the favourable ratings that users give Brent Libraries, but warns that stock issues have been a problem.  As I have mentioned before, there seems to be quite a mismatch between rising visit numbers and the much more limited rise in issues.  These should not obscure the general story of improvement.

In my view, this improvement is put at risk by Cllr Butt's latest expedient of trying to get various groups to write a "community libraries strategy". 

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Boundary Gerrymander

The Kilburn Times covers the Tory gerrymander on boundaries today.  Part of the absurdity of this process is that the electorate has gained roughly two million voters since the freeze date, so the supposed gain in equality is fictional in any case.  Let us hope that a proper, less politically partisan review will be put in place soon.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Dawn Finch Warning on Volunteers

Dawn Finch, of CILIP, gives a warning about relying on volunteers to deliver public services here.  It takes as view based very much on overworked volunteers, but I think there is also a great danger of false expectations of support from hard pressed local authorities, and a general under-estimation of how hard it can be to run a public service.  The shift from initial enthusiasm to rapidly dwindling numbers is also noteworthy.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Planning U-Turn

I see from the previous Scrutiny Committee that Brent Council is now neeing to take on more planning officers to deal with both developing a single Local Plan and the planning needs around Old Oak Common.  This is shortly after drastically reducing planning staff to cut costs.  This is not the kind of thing that should happen in a well run organisation.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

More on ACV Status

Incidentally following my comment yesterday about how ACV status actually forces a current owner to put a building up for sale, it is interesting to see that Brent Council's ACV listing shows that the former Kensal Rise Library would have been in its moratorium period at the moment (had that been triggered). 

In this case, a private owner is leasing the building, and appears to be happy to lease it to FKRL, so there should be no complication.  Brent Council, the owner of the former Preston Library building, is a public authority and therefore subject to much more onerous requirements. 

Friday, 9 September 2016

ACV Status and the Former Library at Preston

I promised yesterday to cover the complications from the former Preston Library's status as an asset of community value.  This is a widely misunderstood status, which people seem to seek to gain a measure of protection for a building, but which does not really carry such protection.  I tried to explain this back when the application was made. 

The list of such assets in Brent is an odd one.  The presence of the Stonebridge Adventure Playground, since demolished, emphasizes that being listed by no means guarantees preservation.  I have always felt rather sad about the Playground as I think that had it been treated differently, at least some of its usefulness and value could have been preserved.  Unfortunately, I think that didn't happen because things like the asset listing distracted from the main point.

The curious thing about Preston Library as was is that the group that called for its listing also wants Brent Council to give it to them without marketing it in any way.  That is not a realistic prospect for other reasons, but the ACV listing makes it even less so.

If Brent Council goes for its preferred option of building 19 units on the site, those will automatically not have ACV status because the legislation does not allow ACV status for residential property.  Incidentally, there would be no delay in building from the ACV status, because the six month delay only kicks in under change of ownership.  Brent Council can demolish the existing building and build on the site without changing ownership.  They would need planning permission to do this, but Brent has accorded little weight to ACV status in previous decisions so it is not much of a factor.

There is then the question of what to do with the community space.  Here the ACV status becomes relevant as the law forced the Council to put it on the market for any community group to make a bid.  That would include say local religious organisations, people wanting to start free schools, or indeed anyone who can get 21 registered electors in Brent and the neighbouring authorities to say they want to bid.  That could be a lot of different groups, and they might very well out bid the original group. 

Incidentally, the building's recent use as a school also means the Education Secretary might try to hand it over to a free school.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Preston Library Building Returns

The fate of the former Preston Library building is on the agenda of Brent Council's next Cabinet.  Officer preference is to buy the adjacent plot and use the site for housing, which would be eminently sensible.  This does, however, run into objections from the former Preston Library group who have been demanding the building be handed over to them.

This was a demand over a long period of time with which Cllr Muhammed Butt has played along.  At times the group has been given a more realistic assessment, which they have preferred not to believe.  Given that they have repeatedly been given mixed messages, it is perhaps not surprising that they preferred the one that was closer to their own views.  It was summed up in an "offer" made shortly before polling day in 2014.

The main problem with this offer is that it cannot be reconciled with Brent Council's fiduciary duty, as I have pointed out before

The planned redevelopment includes a community space (D1 class), which the Preston group wants to be handed to it for free.  Again this would be in breach of the Council's duty, and the situation is further complicated by the building's status as an asset of community value, which I shall deal with in a different post.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Standards Delay at Brent Council

I wonder what happened to the Standards Committee investigation into Cllr Muhammed Butt?  The Brent Council web site seems to shows that the next Standards Committee meeting has been cancelled.  Presumably, the investigator is taking longer than he hoped.  I do hope this does not drag on like the Bertha Joseph case. The delay in that case was sharply criticised by the appeal tribunal. 

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Brent Council Debt Recovery

The next Brent Council Cabinet has an interesting paper on debt collection.  This is a difficult area, requiring a balance between collecting what is due to the tax payer with an understanding of the needs of what can be vulnerable debtors. 

I must say I am shocked at the sheer level of the debts _ £90 million, and surprised at the modest recovery target of only £1 million.  the principles of the new policy sound commonsensical.  It is also interesting that the Council feels taking the service in-house may be a more efficient way of doing things.  It is also interesting to read that an inhouse service might be more humane in its operations.

Monday, 5 September 2016

More on the Paul Lorber Rip-off

Returning to Paul Lorber's attempted rip-off of Brent Council taxpayers, I notice that one of his justifications for refusing to pay rent for a year is that the fitting out of the former Community Lounge will be expensive.  Of course, this is something he should, and probably did, think about before he put his bid in October last year

I note, however, that Martin Francis reports that Paul Lorber is contemplating a further bid to take over the "Card Room".  This seems to make nonsense of his pleading poverty in doing up the former Community Lounge, since the Card Room is a much more formidable undertaking. 

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Cllr Butt Stakes Our Money on His Reputation

Back when Cllr Muhammed Butt first became Council Leader, he made a number of suggestions that he intended to be more open and democratic than his immediate predecessor.  In practice, I think he has been very much the opposite, not least in his odd practices with Cara Davani and other senior officers.  A striking example comes in this week's Cabinet papers relating to Council finances. 

With very little publicity either inside or outside the Labour Party, he is proposing that powers to fix the revenue support grant simply be delegated to himself and the Chief Executive.  This would apply to the grant up to 2019/20, and is a major decision.  Delegating the decision in this way demands a great deal of faith in two people, and I suspect the acknowledged reputational damage that the Council admits it has suffered under Cllr Butt's leadership means that faith is not widely shared. 

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Paul Lorber Manoeuvres over Barham Park Building

Barham Trust has now published its agenda for the 6 September, and as I had suspected, Paul Lorber is aiming for a shake down of the taxpayer. 

I was critical of the original decision to award the lease to Paul Lorber in October 2015, and have been quizzical at the failure to conclude an agreement since.  It now seems that Pauk Lorber's organisation is trying to get out of the deal it bid for.  The agenda reminds us that under the terms of the bid that the "Friends of Barham Library" were awarded the lease:

"The marketing particulars did not offer a rent free period.  Nor did the bid submitted by FoBL propose a rent free period for the first year of the term of the lease."

These were the terms under which Paul Lorber was bidding against a rival organisation at the time.  Subsequently, the report explains:

"Subsequently, during the lease document preparation process, the FoBL requested a rent free period.  The FoBL argued that the Vets had been offered a 12 month rent free period and therefore in the interests of fairness they should be offered the same terms.  The FoBL also relied upon the fact that in order for them to operate their library services they would need to incur substantial fitting out costs."

In other words, Paul Lorber suddenly introduced a major variation on the terms he had previously agreed, once he knew the rival bidder was safely out the way.  I find it easy to suspect that this was his intention at the time of the original bid.  The report goes on:

"Consistent with the Trust Committee’s decision, the Heads of Terms prepared by the Council and dated 19 January 2016, and which the FoBL agreed, did not include a rent free period.  However, a
draft lease prepared by the Council in March of this year inadvertently included a 12 month rent free

Thus, the FoBL, which is effectively Paul Lorber, agreed again the rent in January, having also agreed to it in October.  The March draft somehow or other included a variation which had no authority from the elected councillors either as councillor or as corporate Trustee.  Those familiar with Paul Lorber's way of doing things will not be surprised to learn that this led him to make a bold and unresonable claim:

"According to the FoBL the inclusion of a rent free period was not a mistake.  They argue that they asked for it and it appeared in the lease and therefore it has been agreed and they have relied upon it in good faith and to their detriment ever since."

 The report then goes to some pains to explain that the officers could not vary the terms without going back to committee, and that leases only become binding when both sides agree them.  I think this understanding is widely understood by most people, including Paul Lorber and he is just trying it on in order to get money out of the tax payer.

In doing so, he has confirmed my original suspicion that he is not to be trusted.  The Committee now has a choice between demanding that he sign the lease on the terms agreed, or concluding that he has acted in bad faith, and is not an acceptable partner for the Council to negotiate with.  I would have thought that the earlier bidder, who agreed to pay the rent provided, might well have a case for the Council to rerun the bidding process.