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Monday, 31 October 2016

Nationalisation and Privatisation

I remarked a while ago on the phantom privatisation of Council Housing in the shapes of ALMOs, it is equally striking how little comments there has been on the nationalisation of housing associations by the present Conservative government. 

What is striking about this is that it was just announced by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) one day that Housing Associations had become public corporations.  A useful paper from Northern Ireland explains the process.  I think the ONS were quite right.  If the government starts telling you that you have to sell off your assets, how you reinvest the capital, what rents you can charge and so on you are effectively nationalised. 

Nonwtheless, no one seems to have publicly reacted to this new fact.  I suspect the Tory ministers that did it literally had no idea what they were doing.  Given that their great objective since election in 2010 was supposed to be getting getting public debt down, the effect of taking on the liabilities of the Housing Associations on to the public books is pretty embarrassing.  I would have though just wiping out the business plans of these organisations at a stroke also sat very ill with traditional Tory philosophy.  It must be the biggest nationalisation since Stephen Byers took over Network Rail, maybe bigger.

The Labour Party has also been surprisingly reticent on the subject, but even more striking has been the silence of the Hard Left.  It is, after all, an indication that the problems of a sector don't necessarily just fall away with a change of ownership.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Helen Milner and Digital Engagement

Some of the commentary on Helen Milner's views on library strategy appears to be unaware of how involved she is in the sector.  A recent report from her organisation on digital involvement and public libraries can be downloaded here.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

A Modern Mission for Libraries

Helen Milner of the Tinder Foundation has rather bravely suggested that public libraries have to move on from the "never close a library position".  For that she deserves praise, and she gets a balanced review from Public Libraries News which first alerted me to her post.  It is striking how the public libraries debate has never moved beyond demands that Building X should never close, or it sometimes feels, even change.

Helen sees another side of things, where must be acutely aware of the need for a large part of the population to engage digitally.  Failure to do so risks greater social division and lack of opportunity as both public and private organisations are increasingly organised around digital technology.

Libraries can play a huge role in meeting these needs, but too often seem to get bogged down in autobiographical arguments about some celebrities' childhood.

Brent's Libraries Transformation Project was a serious attempt to tackle these issues at a local level, and one that was markedly successful. 

Why Aren't Local Authority Libraries Better?
Why don't more authorities do this if it is so important?  I suspect that is down to a combination of failing to understand how modern libraries can feed into a digital agenda; the fierce resistance of a vocal minority and sheer lack of ambition.

The first of these is summed by those celebrities.  Time and again, I have read articles and interviews that speak nostalgically about childhood in a public library but seem to have no awareness of how libraries can be used to broaden peoples' access to knowledge, which was their original Victorian purpose.  One can also read a minority of articles arguing libraries are redundant.  Again, this is based on the assumption that they have no capacity for change.  Essentially, one has to get across the argument that the modern version of the traditional mission of encouraging people to read (and write) now includes reading and writing digitally.  That means making modern IT and forms of social media less frightening for many people, making other people more aware of technology's limitations as well as possibilities and also how to navigate online in what can be quite basic ways.  That is a really big, bold mission which public libraries are uniquely placed to perform and it is not widely realised.

The second strand here that is actually becoming an obstacle here is the vocal campaigns that always seem to be framed in terms of the status quo.  Helen Milner is right to try to say the starting point should be what are the strategic aims of a library service and how might it achieve them.  I would not quite start with a blank piece of paper as she suggests, but an awareness of how society has changed since the libraries were built might be useful.  That means where the population is, how people get around, what they expect of services, how they access what they need and all sorts of other things.

That kind of analysis seems to get blanked out by two other things.  One is a kind of "just say No" approach.  In Brent, we saw campaign groups shouting (often literally) that there must be no change of any kind.  That is actually an oddly authoritarian position.  It assumes that whoever made decisions in the past chose not just the best distribution of resources for that moment but also for all time.  In a case like Brent, where some groups have devoted huge energy to denouncing public libraries as a total disaster, I think some people find themselves psychologically unable to accept any evidence of success, including the opinions of people who actually use libraries.  That seems a great pity, coming from people whose very desire to defend libraries has led them where they are now.

The second area which I think has really played into the decline of the libraries is the idea of volunteers keeping a library open.  This is in many ways an easier option for councillors.  Compared to the rows Brent went through, you can see that keeping a building "open" for shorter hours, but with not much in them is a hell of a lot easier than going through the difficulty of actually reforming a public service with most of the pain immediate but the benefits years down the line, and perhaps invisible even then.  Just quiet piecemeal cutting makes for a much quieter life, and with many councillors under so many other pressures, and often failing to understand the potential of libraries to change the lives of people they represent for the better, you can see why they opt for the quiet life.

Which brings me to the final point.  Local authorities, battered by cuts, are losing the ambition to really shape their areas for the better.  This is true not just of libraries but in general.  Ambitious schemes seem pie in the sky when you struggle to keep your head above water, but sometimes ambitious schemes are the only way to keep your head above water.  Clinging to the safe and reliable as the tide wash over you may be more likely to lead to drowning than a difficult scramble up a cliff.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Dynamism in the Libraries Debate

A comment here wonders what I make of the proposals to reduce Walsall's libraries to just one.  I am no expert on Walsall, but it looks like another local council doing its best to cope with central government cuts that are frankly unsustainable.  George Osborne's economic strategy was counterproductive, constantly missing its targets, and Philip Hammond has been pragmatic enough to accept that.

Provided they have good transport links, urban areas may be in a position to follow a Brent type strategy of fewer buildings open for longer with more in them.  In Brent that has seen both usage and borrowing go up, as well as higher levels of public satisfaction.  This kind of thing has also worked in other praised authorities,  

The other thing that strikes me about the Guardian piece is its similarity to many other pieces I have read.  It is frustrating that journalists appear not to be able to get beyond these staples: cuts to budgets, closures (never any diffrentiation between closing different kinds of library), personal anecdotes about libraries in the past.

The famous legal duty to provide libraries has been effectively rewritten by first the Bailey case and then the Draper case in Lincolnshire.  The Sieghart Review's emphasis on Wifi provision further strenghens the case for IT facilities being considered as part of the overall library provision.  Yet the government still seems to have failed to catch up with these developments

Chi Onwuroh had an IT background, and Tom Watson _ who now covers the DCMS portfolio _ is enthusiastic about the digital economy and how it is changing our society.  I would have thought this plays into a pro-library agenda quite easily if only campaigners would engage in a more persuasion orientated mode.

Likewise, I think it a great pity that there is talk about parts of libraries being used as cafes, but this tends to be discussed simply in terms of commercial rents.  Such a use could also have a big impact on how libraries are used more generally.  Hence my frustration at the slow progress in Willesden

Then there is a whole other debate about what is a community hub, and how can such things be managed most effectively, which is perhaps a subject for another post.

Monday, 24 October 2016

NHS Sustainability and Transformation Plan

Tonight's Brent Council cabinet is going to consider the proposed NHS Sustainability and Transformation Plan for the NHS in this part of London.  The plan strongly implies the closure of various facilities.  Were there a wider public understanding of this, I think it would be hugely controversial, but I suspect the controversy will only start once the individual decisions come in. 

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Housing ALMOs

I was interested to read the account given of recent suggestions that Brent's Housing ALMO (Brent Housing Partnership, or BHP) be taken back in house.  The history of these matters is interesting, especially given the contrast between Brent and Camden.

Both Councils were considered to have good housing departments and considered forming ALMOs at the same time.  This was back when the Labour government was making massive investments in local government (about 2003/4).  The debate in Brent Labour Party was pretty short and simple.  The then Lead Member for Housing, Cllr Richard Harrod (now sadly died), told us that if we formed an ALMO Brent would get about £5,000 per property to do them up.  Aside from a few hard left people, everyone thought that was pretty much a no-brainer and we went for it and formed BHP.

In Camden, there was a campaign led by the Camden New Journal telling tenants that this was privatisation and urging rejection.  A referendum by Council tenants rejected the money and the formation of the ALMO.  The tenants were then surprised to learn that without the ALMO, they would get no money and there was a long stand off with central government where the government refused extra money without the formation of an ALMO.  It was one of those episodes where I felt that misinformation (Both the privatisation accusation and the illusion of choice) led to an unnecessary confrontation and a very poor outcome for local tenants.  Eventually, Camden has gone down the route of selling off some of its properties to pay for repairs, which in Brent were done through government grant.

Other authorities, such as Islington, formed an ALMO, took and spent the money, and then took the service back in-house.

It is interesting to read that the tenants at the Brent meeting actually prefer the Brent ALMO in some form.  Possibly BHP should consider a Co-operative model, of which there are many round the country, that would preserve the more democratic ethos that at least that meeting seemed to prefer.

Oddly, I can't seem to find much information through searching the Camden New Journal web site on what was a campaign that arguably swung the decision

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Grunwick Commemoration at the Brent Musuem

An exhibition commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Grunwick Strike has opened at the Brent Museum.  The strike took place in the mid-70s at what is now Grunwick Place, but was then a photo processing plant by Dollis Hill Tube in Willesden Green ward.


In answer to the comment below, no.  As a matter of fact, at least one of the people credited with organising this event is a very long standing member of Brent Labour Party.  I did however state that we need to be sure that the funds raised towards this cause went to a Grunwick commemoration, not anything else.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Gates into King Edward VII Park

I notice that new types of pedestrian gates have been fitted to King Edward VII park Willesden, although the vehicular access is unchanged.  Why is that?

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Brent Council Tax Freeze?

The next Brent Council Cabinet will be considering budget proposals.  As in previous years under Cllr Butt's leadership, there appears to have been fairly limited discussion of these within the Labour Group.  This is rather a failing since the Budget underlies all the Council's activities.

Just concentrating on the Council Tax issue for the moment.  The report, under paragraph 5.4 proposes to consult on the projected increases in 2017/18 and 2018/19.  Since the current proposals are for the maximum possible rise that can reasonably be obtained, that can only mean a potential limit to the rise or perhaps a freeze.  I have noted before that this effectively destroys the Council's finances in future years.  Cllr Muhammed Butt has in the past been a strong advocate of freezing the Council Tax, apart from for the very poorest in Brent, where he favoured one of the steepest Council Tax rises in London.  He was so intent on freezing Council Tax that he ignored a majority Labour Group vote on the issue.  I don't know if this was related to Cllr Mikey Pavey's resignation, but the members of the Labour Group will need to be on the look out that they are not ignored again. 

Monday, 17 October 2016

A Dumped Car in Kilburn

At the weekend I saw a dumped car outside the former RSPCA Animal War Memeroial Dispensary in South Kilburn.

I haven't seen one of those in Brent for years.  They used to be very common, but EU regulations promoting recycling and rising metal prices saw them disappear.  This one is blocking a disabled parking space so I hope it gets moved as quickly as possible.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Predictable Problems at Brent Community Libraries

I have been reading the recently available minutes of the last Brent Cabinet meeting.  They read like a group of people each of whom, is desperate not to say to say "no" to the Preston group but all of whom are at some level uneasily aware of the problems around fiduciary duty and asset of community value at the Preston Annex site. 

It is striking to see how some of the obvious trends coming to pass as I predicted.  I see that Mr Bromberg made a direct link between supposed peppercorn rents at allotments, and the use of a peppercorn rent at the Preston building.  I would have thought that the comparison between an allotment and a fairly substantial building is quite different.  I wasn't aware that allotments had peppercorn rents anymore.  My memory is that the allotment strategy introduced charging which the users certainly did not feel was negligible.  The new fees were part of the effort to control the ever rising waiting lists that we had identified, an effort that was successful

I also note that there is already an effort to spread whatever is done at Barham, and then at Preston to Kensal Rise.  These three buildings all have quite different circumstances of course, with Kensal Rise not having any Council involvement at all.  Nonetheless, it isn't hard to foresee that any deal for one group will lead numerous other groups to complain that they are not being treated in the same way. 

This situation is being obviously mismanaged by Cllr Butt and will lead to another Dollis Hill House saga, although in this case one spread across multiple sites all over the Borough.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Brent's Constant Library Growth Draws to a Close

Time to look at the half year figures for Brent Library Visits and Loans.  The most recent full year statistics are here

There were 1,204,502 visits in the half year up to the end of September 2016, and 532,754 issues.  That is growth of 0.4% in visits and zero growth in issues.  It therefore seems that the remarkable run of year on year growth of Brent libraries is about to end.  Possibly the full year figures will be lower this year.  While the first quarter was very strong thanks largely to the improvement at Willesden Library, the second quarter was much weaker and wiped out the gain earlier in the year. 

At some point this was inevitable, and it was hinted at in earlier reports.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Kensal Green Graffiti

I am glad to see that the graffiti I noticed some days ago at Kensal Green Tube station has been cleaned off. 

Friday, 7 October 2016

Cllr Mike Pavey Resigns

News reaches me that Cllr Mike Pavey has resigned from the Brent Council Executive, citing incompability with Cllr Butt.  It is highly unusual for councillors to resign from the Executive in this way.  The last example was Cllr Perrin in 2014, again because of incompatibility with Cllr Butt. I can't recall any such case before then.

Since becoming leader four and a bit years ago Cllr Butt has got through three Chief Executives, virtually the entire senior officer team, numerous members of the Executive, including three deputies, at least five political assistants, and half a dozen Labour Party organisers.  The recent report investigating his conduct remarked on the "evident animosity" between Cllr Butt and the London Labour Party.

As the Labour Group gathers for its Budget away day tomorrow, perhaps they should reflect on that.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Parks as a Statutory Service

I have just walked through King Edward VII park (Willesden), which was full of the stuff that you would expect on a sunny Sunday morning _ people playing football, dog walkers, joggers.  Some people think parks would be secured if they were made into a statutory service, like public libraries.  They feel this would safeguard parks against cuts in funding

In fact, as with libraries, I doubt that this would be the case.  So long as local authorities are seeing the kinds of cuts to total budgets that Labour areas are seeing, ways will have to be found to balance the budget.  Increasingly, making things more efficient is getting harder.  The only real way to safeguard such valued services is to increase the funding available to them.