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Saturday, 30 December 2017

Brexit Border Dilemma

Flip Chart Fairy Tales has a good summary of the problems around the Northern Ireland border.  David Davis appears to be in denial, and his Tory colleagues are tolerating him because they know he is pro-Brexit no matter what.  What I always find bewildering about this sort of thing is do these people imagine that pretending something is true can continue forever?

Monday, 18 December 2017

Rare Example of Successful Community Asset Transfer

Lambeth seems to give a rare example of a successful community asset transfer, although the library itself appears to continue to be Council run.  It is probably significant that Upper Norwood Library had a long prehistory of running semi-independently.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Gesture Politics Reaches New Low

I have often been critical of gesture politics, but surely the latest motion from the City of Rome reaches a new low.  The City Council have revoked the exile of Ovid.  That makes the continuous effort to turn Brent Council into a platform for Middle Eastern politics look almost sensible by comparison. 

Saturday, 16 December 2017

More on Community Managed Libraries

For those interested more information on community managed libraries can now be found through a Network.  The Network makes some effort to analyse performance by community managed libraries, but this is limited compared to the figures used at public libraries.  This may well be because some CML have no library management systems in the formal sense. 

Friday, 15 December 2017

More on the Biggest Libraries

Looking again  at CIFPA's list of the UK's five biggest libraries, I note that at least four of them appear to be (in some way quite new). 

The one I know best is of course Wembley Library, now the third most visited in the country with almost 1.4 million visits.  That is a stark contrast to the old Brent Town Hall library it replaced, which had about 200k visits at the time it closed.  Wembley Library was of course newly opened as a custom built facility in 2013. 

Birmingham Central Library was opened at vast expense in 2013.  Manchester underwent a major refurbishment prior to reopening in 2014.  Woolwich Library opened I am not sure when, but I think it was quite recently.  I believe they all attracted a lot of negative publicity until they actually opened. 

Thursday, 14 December 2017

CILIP Calling for Greater Library Transparency

CILIP and the Labour Party are quite rightly calling for more transparency on library figures, alongside a more timely rate of publication.  As the libraries sector is becoming ever more dependent on the use of volunteers, it would also be a good idea if someone would actually make some attempt to monitor whether "community managed libraries" actually work.

At present, the only evidence is anecdotal, and (in my view) unreliable.  I think this is for a number of reasons:

a) Many volunteers don't really understand the scale or scope of what public libraries do, so they tend to overestimate what "their" library does in comparison.
b) Volunteers are normally trying desperately to fund raise and you raise funds by selling what a good job you can/are doing, not by a candid assessment of what is going well and what isn't.
c) Politicians and Councils don't want to get into fights with residents so they aren't completely candid in explaining that the volunteer run services are functioning at a much lower level than the previous Council services. 
d) Some of the costs of community run libraries can be quite hidden compared to local government figures.  For example, there can be ongoing managerial support from the Council, "grace and favour" arrangements for the use of buildings, use of Council IT systems with less than transparent charges and so on.
e) Some of the outcomes of community managed libraries can also be untested.  For instance, I don't think most such libraries formally measure loans and visits in the way CIPFA expects or have any equivalent to the PLUS surveys.  If they have monitoring systems, I suspect they are probably quite specific to each institution and therefore it is hard to draw comparisons.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

The Usual Street Gritting Suspects

Picking up on the street gritting stories in the Kilburn Times, I see a lot of complaints.  This tends to happen every time there is even a limited amount of snow, so I would have thought by now all councillors would know that gritting most of the roads in Brent is a Borough responsibility not a TfL one.  Indeed, in the past it has been a source of controversy  as Brent has not bought enough street grit in the past.  Monday's weather seem to me to be handled quite well, with more major roads done first.  It really is unrealistic for people to expect all 480km of Brent roads simply to be covered in street grit as soon as snow starts falling.

I have gone through some of the practical obstacles to winter readiness before.  I was interested to read that only 840 tons of rock salt is in store, which is lower than in the past.  Possibly more is on order, although rock salt tends to be mined all year round, so you can't generally just hold of it when the weather is bad.  It has to be ordered well in advance.  It is also possible that since I wrote that piece in 2011, technology has improved so that more efficient use of forecasting reduces the need for gritting.  These days weather forecasts can be so exact that the different ground surface temperatures (GST) of different parts of London can be tracked.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Brent and UK Libraries

CIPFA have published new figures on public library provision, and on the whole they are pretty grim.  The Guardian tells us: "Visits [are] down  by 3% year on year, and by 14% over the last five years. The decline, according to the CIPFA figures, is almost across the board: book issues fell by 6.3% in the last year, and by 25.1% in the last five years. Book stock held is also down by 2.6%.

The Brent experience, in contrast, is shown here:

And the Brent experience on loans (NB the high base line) is here:

The improved performance in both visits and loans is attributable to seven day opening, the refurbishment of Kilburn Library (Pictures are available here), a new library at Willesden and a new library at Wembley.  These all formed part of the Brent Libraries Transformation Project

So just to repeat, over a period when national library visits declined by 14%, Brent's went up by 61%.  In the same period, loans went down 25.1% nationally, but rose by 8% in Brent.  

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Affordable Housing in Wembley Reduced to Almost Nothing

My eye was caught by an extremely high tower block proposal coming up at the next Planning Committee.  The "East of Wembley Stadium" application provides for only 7% affordable housing on the pretext that the housing will be kept at a genuinely affordable rent level.  It is recommended to be granted

I have argued before that there are genuine trade offs around affordability, unit size and so on, but this becoming ridiculous.

Firstly the proportion is so tiny that almost nothing is being demanded of the developers at all.  7% does not even begin to meet the needs of Wembley, as the GLA has pointed out.  Secondly I don't see any reason to believe that the developer can be kept to the promised reduced rate.  It would not surprise me in the least if the properties are sold off as straight forward commercial units in future.  Thirdly, the blocking of views to the Stadium has a woeful impact on the Stadium's place as the centrepiece of Wembley's regeneration.

I doubt however, that the Committee will do more than rubberstamp what is put in front of them.  If it does it will be another sign that the Planning system in Brent has been thoroughly broken and (for whatever reason) councillors and officers are simply waiving through applications with simply no effort to scrutinise them properly. 

The report, and the subsequent report for more car parking, both seem to indicate that the GLA is becoming concerned at the ways in which the London Plan is being ignored, so that it is possible that Sadiq Khan will intervene, but why aren't Brent Councillors and officers doing a better job to stick up for the interests of Brent and Tokyngton?

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Questions and Yet more Questions

It seems that Brent Council has another of its semi-scandals brewing.  A fuller discussion can be found here.  A number of the answers given appear to be contradictory.  Giving false answer on the register of gifts and hospitality and/or in in relation to FoI requests is itself a serious matter.  The murk becomes thicker following the attempt by the CEO to "clarify" the situation here

Friday, 8 December 2017

Brexit Breakthrough

Theresa May appears to have managed a breakthrough in the Brexit talks this morning, although perhaps not in the way she intended.  Underlining who has real control of the situation, the EU Commission has declared "sufficient progress" has been made to go to a stage two.

Although everyone is politely pretending that everyone has got what they wanted, it seems to me that the breakthrough essentially consists of the UK saying yes to what the European Union asked for months ago.  Moreover, the absence of effective mechanisms to make the situation unclear in ways that will just have to be made clearer during the remaining period.

Thankfully it appears that there will be no hard border with the Republic or down the Irish Sea.  During the "transition" period, according to Donald Tusk, the UK will be governed by EU law including the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.  The Irish government spokesman told everyone that "stated commitment to maintain full alignment with those rules of the internal market and customs union which, now or in the future, support north-south cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the Good Friday agreement.”

Those two statements sound to me that we will be in the Single Market for at least two years following "Brexit" in March 2019.  In the cases of the "areas covered by the Good Friday Agreement" _ whatever they may be _ we are apparently going to stay in the Single Market in perpetuity. 

I would imagine that will leave the stronger pro-EU parts of the UK plenty of scope to demand that we also permanently remain in the Single Market in economic sectors that matter to them.  For instance I would expect both Scotland and London to want to remain in the Single Market for Financial Services.

The agreement also apparently means that EU citizens in the UK will retain the same rights as they had before, which I am glad of since I know that this has been a real source of anxiety for many people.  According to the Guardian (at 8.23am today), the Taoiseach said that "Everyone born in Northern Ireland will retain their right to EU citizenship."  If so that seems to create  new category of UK citizen, one who remains a citizen of the European Union despite the UK leaving it.  That strikes me as very odd and I would think would worry the DUP in terms of Northern Ireland drifting to the Republic, an understandable concern to anyone who knows some Irish history.  Personally, I would have thought many people in the rest of the UK would envy that right and want a similar deal, if only because it will make travel around the EU easier.

It is beginning to sound as if Brexit will mean the UK obeying all the EU rules but having no representation at the EU decision making bodies, as well as making a payment of around £39 billion to the European Union.  Still footing the bills and becoming a rule taker rather than a rule maker.

I imagine that Jacob Rees-Mogg feels rather as if his gun dog brought something deeply unpleasant out of the swamp this morning to lay at his feet.

David Davis MP and the Brexit Assessments

The Guardian has now done a round up of all the times David Davis referred to his Brexit analysis documents in Parliament.  The record speaks for itself in the number of times he has misled Parliament, but his Tory colleagues are determined to close ranks around him.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

How Might Colocation Evolve at Willesden Library?

Now that Willesden Library is fully occupied for the first time since it opened, it is worth thinking about how co-location might evolve there.  Colocation is often seen as a zero sum game with space being taken away from library services and given to other purposes purely as an exercise in cost cutting.  I am sure that there are such examples, but I think Willesden Library really does add value by being more than the sum of its parts.  In particular from a Library point of view, the other activities all draw in people who may then add to library usage.

Willesden Library Cafe, for instance, may simply start attracting customers off the High Road or the bus stop looking coffee and tea who then may end up becoming curious about the Library offer.  It also may make use of the library more in line with modern tastes.  There is some reason to believe that use of libraries is shifting more to a leisure based model where soft furnishings and a cup of coffee fit in more than sitting sitting at a desk doing homework.

Similarly, ExploreLearning may well market the Library to a new clientale who, since they are interested in learning, should be a natural fit with library services.

I am not sure how far this has been planned but the sheer variety of events and activities held in Brent libraries add to the diversity of uses and help the library to reach a broader range of people than had traditionally been the case.

Another area of possible development is the public realm around the library.  As its winter, it is probably too cold and dark and wet to do all that much with the spaces around the library at present, but I think they are well designed for outdoor activities.  During the construction process some people argued that there was tremendous demand for the use of outdoor space in Willesden Green, leading to an application for a town green.  The critics of the scheme appear to have largely disappeared

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Profiteering over Fire Risk

Yesterdays Times contained a story about leaseholders in private flats being forced to pay inflated prices prices for allegedly unnecessary "fire safety" works.  This is exactly what I fear may happen in former BHP blocks as well.  To make things worse, the sudden splurge in spending may well lead to genuine shortages of materials and labour making prices higher than they would otherwise have been. 

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Brexit and Northern Ireland

Yesterday's collapse in Brussells really makes me wonder whether Brexit can go ahead.  Rather than a minor miscommunication over the exact text, it seems to me to be a far more fundamental failure with the failure of those demanding Brexit to understand the nature of our relationship with the European Union, and indeed the nature of their own demands.

Given the huge cost of a hard border with the Republic to Northern Ireland, and the risk to the Good Friday Agreement, I assume that the DUP genuinely wants an open border, but I don't see how you can have that with Northern Ireland remaining in the Single Market.  Leaving the rest of the UK outside the Single Market would then create a hard internal border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, which would obviously be anathema to any unionist. 

The whole mess has also led to exceptionalist demands by Scotland, Wales and London for a similar bespoke deal, which would create even more internal border issues, quite bizarre ones in the case of London. 

Keeping the whole of the UK in the Single Market is hated by the hard Right as the Conservative Party is hated because it would be incompatible with their zero regulation fantasies and tantamount to remaining in the European Union.

I really can't imagine how the Brexiteers are going to escape their inherent contradictions on this one. 

Trees in Brent

If you have ever wondered how many trees Brent has the answer is in a forthcoming Council report.  It estimates the Council is responsible for "17,000 public highway trees,  5,200 estate trees located on 200 housing estates, and 14,500 trees in Brent’s parks and cemeteries". There will also be a number of trees on private land.  

Monday, 4 December 2017

Parking Money Rolls into Brent

It is striking that parking revenues have continued to roll into Brent (according to the forthcoming Cabinet papers.  Apparently: "All budget planning expectations have been met or exceeded, providing additional contributions to the corporate cost of concessionary fares in each year from 2014/15" (paragraph 4.2)despite the Council being precipitately banned from using cameras by central government.  

Indeed the total income has gone from £7.9 million in 2013/14 to £11.7 million in 2016/17, quite an increase.  The money pays for most of the cost of maintaining the Freedom Pass. 

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Brexit Sleight of Hand

Fifty billion to leave the European Union; three billion to prepare for leave; start adding it up and pretty soon you're talking real money.  Thinking of that old Ronald Reagan gag this morning.  It is amazing how the government's insistence on strict spending  limits can go out the window when politics intervenes. 

Or rather, it shows you how much some Tories really hate what they imagine to be the EU.

The Brexit preparation bill at least seems to be mainly sleight of hand.  The three billion comes out of departmental budgets in places like the Foreign Office that can then reapply for the Brexit pot to offset the money that they need to prepare for Brexit, so probably the same money will just be reshuffled around the system.  Such are the vagaries of Budget presentation. 

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Tulip Siddiq and Channel4 News

I see that Brent Green Party alongside Channel 4 News is trying to make hay out of Tulip Siddiq's confrontation with Channel 4 News.  The case is described here.  I would be truly surprised if either of them is unaware of the parliamentary convention that you only raise matters relating to your own constituents.  Under these rules, the Speaker might reprimand Tulip if she took up the case. 

As far as I can see, she is being urged to simply because she is of Bangladeshi heritage and related to eminent Bangladeshi politicians.  This is one of the subtler ways in which ethnic minority politicians are treated differently. 

UPDATE 03.12.17

In answer to the comment, I don't think Tulip was trying to threaten anybody; she was just rather clumsily trying to extricate herself from a confrontational situation.  I notice that she has apologised for the remark anyway.

The way Channel 4 has targeted her because she is Bangladeshi is because they know that she has no connection to the case they are raising.  Anybody who has ever worked in a MP's office, or had much dealing with them, knows that it is standard not to deal with the casework of people who live in other constituencies.  Thus Tulip has campaigned for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to be released as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a Hampstead and Kilburn constituent.  Ahmed Bin Quasem is not a Hampstead and Kilburn constituent.  His case should be raised by his own MP, and I am sure that Channel4 News know that full well.  They have gone to Tulip simply because she is Bangladeshi in origin.  I think it is wholly inappropriate to start expecting MPs from ethnic minorities to raise cases in Parliament simply because they involve people from the same ethnic minority.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Planning Appeal?

There is no word as yet as to whether Manor Park Works is going to be appealed or subject to a fresh application.  This is unsurprising as people have up to six months to make an appeal to the Planning Inspectorate.  I would have thought given the strangeness of the decision, an appeal was extremely likely. 

Thursday, 30 November 2017

House Building

Hidden away in this week's Spectator is an article giving the years with the lowest number of new homes per year since 1949.  They are: 2013 (135,340), 2010 (135,970), 2011 (140,680), 2012 (141,550) and 2014 (145,010).  The highest build years are all in the 1960s under the Wilson government, when of course Council building was commonplace.  I think the message is fairly obvious.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

ExploreLearning in Willesden Library

A company called ExploreLearning has now set up an office in Willesden Green Library Centre in what used to be known  as the Long Room.  The Long Room had originally been intended for benefits advice, but was judged surplus to requirements as the Wembley Civic centre can apparently deal with all the face to face cases.  I am glad that the long search for a tenant has finally ended. 

The company specialises in English and Maths tuition (for fees).  You can get details of the Willesden branch here.  It certainly looks like a fairly natural fit with a library in terms of colocation, and should encourage usage (albeit for children who already tend to be heavy library users).  With the Willesden Cafe now open, it finally means that all the Library Centre has finally been occupied two years after it opened

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Sexism in Local Government

According to the BBC, concerns over sexism are now spreading out to local government.  The Fawcett Society has apparently published a report on the subject.  I would have thought this kind of concern applies to any where where there is (a) a power imbalance (b) a culture of deference towards people who may commit abuses.  Brent Council would certainly qualify on both those grounds. 

Monday, 27 November 2017

Basic Bank Accounts

An important answer on basic bank accounts was recently secured by Seema Malhotra MP in Treasury questions.  Around 1.5 million people do not have basic bank accounts despite a legal duty by account providers to give them to people not eligible for standard accounts.  The importance of have basic banking facilities for tackling alienation from the normal economy cannot be underestimated. 

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Time Person of the Year

There is a (disputed) report that Donald Trump was in line to be named Time Person of the Year.  Given that this was a title previously held by Adolf Hitler, perhaps it is not such a great accolade.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Libraries and Universal Credit

Universal Credit is turning into an entirely predictable human disaster, as this Guardian story confirms.  I have spoken to people who I have feared become suicidal because of it.  Tweaking the waiting time won't change that.  There are multiple reasons for that, but I just wanted to focus on one aspect, which is the assumption that libraries can tackle the problem that a number of people can't get Internet access.

In fact, using public library access is problematic.  There is a problem with keeping a record of the data on a public computer.  If it is on a memory stick, the information may not be easily accessible when the individual might want to raise a query (say on the phone with an official)  There may be an issue asking advice on a phone in a public place which may have a quiet policy.  There is the issue that library computers are not generally set up to remain confidential, so it is likely that passers by can overlook what people are doing (which may embarrass them), and there is the likelihood there that there is a time limit on usage ( as with Brent Libraries).  All these factors make public library computers less than ideal.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

The Amazing Willesden Library

On this cold morning I find myself in Willesden Library where a very small boy has just walked past me repeatedly telling his parent that "This is amazing".  I think he is quite correct. 

Friday, 17 November 2017

Putting Politics Above Prosperity is Never a Smart Choice

I wonder whether David Davis has contemplated the irony of that line in his speech "putting politics above prosperity is never a smart choice".  After all that phrase sums up the Brexit decision in a nutshell.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Manor Park Works Planning Application

The minutes for the meeting of the Manor Park Works decision are now out, and make curious reading.  I really can't recall any other application where only three members of the Committee chose to vote.  Frankly, I think the Council will find that decision very hard to defend if it goes to appeal.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Planning and Ethics

Martin Francis reports that Cllr Muhammed Butt has been meeting developers and discussing planning applications with them.  He implies this reprehensible.

Such would be the case if Cllr Butt were to subsequently pressure or otherwise instruct members of the Committee as to what decision they were to make.  Indeed any such instruction might invalidate the decision altogether.  It would also be dubious if he were to seek to influence the Planning officers in their recommendations.  It is striking that Cllr Butt seems to show a great deal of interest in planning application, much more so than his predecessors.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Affordable Housing Delivery

Red Brick blog is a reliable source of illumination on housing issues, and has a recent post explaining why it is becoming harder for Councils to deliver affordable housing.  Essentially, the central government's housing policies are pushing up prices and making it much hard to get affordable properties built.  Indeed, I think it entirely plausible that central government has for several years been actively trying to destroy the country's stock of social or affordable housing.  Something that anyone reading Safid Javed's comments should bear in mind. 

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Taking Back Control of Brexit

The sheer emptiness of the Brexiter case is made apparent by the latest ultimatum from Brussels.  It loks like we are finally going to see what Brexit actually means in practice at least with regard to the "divorce" payment and issues around Northern Ireland.  It will be interesting to see what effect this has on public opinion

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Concerns over Bridge Park in Stonebridge

The Kilburn Times reports an unhappy meeting relating to the possible redevelopment of Bridge Park.  I understand the unease with which many people regard developments put forward by Brent Council in its current state.  Experiences with South Kilburn and the Stonebridge Adventure Playground don't exactly give Brent Council a wonderful reputation.  I have argued before that this is linked to the way that some councillors simply try to dodge responsibility

However, it is important not to neglect a possible opportunity here.  The Unisys site, next to Bridge Park, has been abandoned and derelict for at least twenty years.  Combining it with Bridge Park as a redevelopment could create something really good.  Such an idea has been floated for years.  It was even in Labour's 2010 manifesto.  Done well, the site might provide housing, a sports centre and perhaps hotel accommodation or other job generating uses.  Access by the immediate community could possibly be secured by planning conditions (as at Moberley) or continuing community management in some form.  The construction of such a development might also help local businesses as the Civic Centre did

All this would depend on Brent Council making decisions that incorporate such concerns, and here there are obvious fears around the companies that Brent Council has chosen to deal with.  Cllr Muhammed Butt's record in Wembley does not convince me that he is the man to deliver peoples' aspirations, so perhaps incumbent councillors and would be councillors should take a more active role.

Monday, 6 November 2017

More on Brent's Borough of Culture

More details are now available on Brent's Borough of Culture bid.  It sounds like an interesting opportunity, although also one for which competition is likely to be fierce. 

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Air Quality in Brent

The next Cabinet meeting of Brent Council has space for a new air quality action plan.  Thanks to Sadiq Khan this issue has been rising in political importance, and the Plan does have good things in it such as extra tree planting in Neasden Lane, a traditional problem area.  The report does have worrying references to "greater community engagement" which can be code for leaving people to sort out their own problems.  It also doesn't say very much about the Wembley area which thanks to the unwise decisions of Cllr Butt appears to be getting a wave of construction, a slew of extra football matches which are bound to increase traffic congestion and a failure to have appropriate parking policies in place to deal with them. Such a combination may well threaten air quality in the Wembley area. 

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Digital Access at Brent Council

The next Brent Council Cabinet has a report on Brent's customer services which continues to follow the trend away from face to face towards digital engagement.  In itself, that is no bad thing.  It can be quicker and cheaper and actually the preferred option of many people, but for a minority of people it may present a problem.

In particular, ministers have suggested that benefit claimants can increasingly access services using publicly available computers in libraries, but such computers tend to be in the open.  They are often sited in such ba way as to be open to public view, which is not suitable when inputting confidential data such as medical or financial information (as might well be the case with a benefit application).  This sort of thing needs to be carefully thought through if they are being increasingly relied on for such purposes.

Friday, 3 November 2017

More Thoughts on Replacing Public Libraries

Some thoughts on the agendas behind volunteer libraries are here.  I have been making similar points for some, namely do volunteer libraries actually work as libraries? No one seems to know.  Volunteer libraries may well be a form of back door privatisation, which at least in some cases means handing over a public asset to a "community" organisation who actually have no real accountability to the community and are not really effectively monitored for what they do.  The last area of danger is that they may just drain resources from the proper library service which is thereby slowly undermined. 

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Brent's Culture Bid

Visitors to Brent Libraries will have seen that the Bough is bidding to be a "Borough of Culture".  I am not sure what this means, but it is nice to see some sort of objective being set for the service now that the Libraries Transformation Project is complete.  Incidentally, Culture is now officially one of the main purposes of public libraries according to the SCL.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Brent Councillors Need to Remember the Language of Priorities

With the housing crisis now so pressing that even government ministers have noticed it, it is interesting to read Brent's Housing Scrutiny agenda coming up today.  The report identifies a key lack of strategic direction in Brent Housing, stating:

“One of the key  problems previously has been the failure  to provide strategic direction and outline the  expectations  that Brent has  for the  delivery of affordable supply to its Housing Association partners. Put simply this has meant  that all development  has  been  entirely opportunity led and Brent has had no influence over development  which  has  led to a surfeit of Shared Ownership Property.” (Paragraph 3.10)

While I am sympathetic to many of the problems that Brent Council faces in trying to solve the Borough 's housing problems with a cascade of central government cutbacks, very little land and constant fiddling with the regulatory regime  that still sounds pretty damning.

There are some directions that Brent Councillors should be deciding, namely:

  • What is the tenure mix?
  • What is the appropriate mix of unit size?
  • What adjustments to each area in terms of civic infrastructure are needed?
  • What is the appropriate mix of land uses?
 I am not at all sure that the first three are getting any sort of answer, and too often the debate seems to retreat into a kneejerk defence of the status quo rather than an attempt to maximise opportunities. 

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Festivals in Brent

Glancing at the Kilburn Times coverage of the Diwali festivities, I can't help but reflect on the debate a few years ago when the Council cut almost all its funding for such things.  Opponents of any change sought to portray the cessation of Council funding as a cessation of the festivals themselves.  Yet here we are, and all these festivals (Christmas, Diwali and so on)  are still being celebrated just as I argued at the time.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Tories Reunited

Brent Conservative Group is apparently continuing its tragicomic progress by re-uniting at an extraordinary Council meeting on Monday next.  This will involve some slight changes to Committee membership, but not apparently anything substantial. I see that Cllr John Warren remains leader despite his alleged "sabotaging peace" in the past.  It is interesting to speculate on the motivations of this motley crew

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Government Hostility to EU Nationals

The government continues its creation of a "hostile climate" towards EU nationals, according to the Guardian.  I really wonder whether ministers have any plan for Brexit at all.  The whole hostile climate agenda, an effort to appease elements who seem to be hostile to all immigrants or even vaguely "foreign" sounding people seems to be in conflict with trying to keep our economy going when so much of it depends on the immigrants that ministers are trying to deter.  The end result seems to be an utterly contradictory mess with some nasty undertones.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Local Government Non-disclosure Agreements

The Harvey Weinstein scandal has been unfolding, and it is very obvious that the various incidents occurred over a long period because so many people turned a blind eye to what they knew was going on.  One of the most effective ways of making this happen appears to have been non-disclosure agreements.  Given that these are commonly used in local government, it may well be time for an investigation into what precisely some authorities are using them for.  Since the tax payer generally pays out these sums, I think the tax payer is entitled to at least a general description of what advantage is being gained, as well as an assurance that no abuses are being covered up.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Brent Libraries Compared to Elsewhere in London

Brent has had an outstandingly successful library service over the last several years, with visits and loans up in the context of a sector in decline across almost all the UK.  While users appear to be happy, there is still a political impression that the service is not a success.  This was generated during the period when all the difficult decisions were being pushed through and has been prolonged by a failure by Brent Council to promote its success story subsequently.  I have pointed out before that it doesn't seem to have translated into failure at the ballot box, but among a small number of activists that appears to be what they tell themselves.

I just I would go through some of the experiences in other areas to look at what alternative strategies might have been pursued.

The most common are handing over to volunteer run libraries.  Often, volunteers just aren't available so it just means straight forward closure.  Where the volunteer libraries stagger on, them seem less active as libraries, but are still there as community spaces of some kind.  The main danger I see with this kind of thing is that they may continue to drain the libraries budget either directly or indirectly by demanding "advice" and "support" that the statutory services has no resources to cater to.  The result can be disappointment on both sides.

A second possibility is a cut in opening hours, which was pursued in Islington at the same time as the Libraries Transformation Project in Brent.  This led to libraries being open a limited number of days a week in Islington.  From 2010/11 to 2014/15, Islington saw a fall in visits of 33.5%.

Other authorities had a mix of reduced numbers of libraries, cuts in staffed opening hours and general reductions in spending.  For example, Camden handed some outlets to volunteers, cut book stock and now maintains reduced staffed hours.  Between 2010/2011 and 2014/15 visits fell by 32.2%.

Lambeth, which initially boasted of its no closure policy has now combined a high use of volunteers in Council facilities with an engagement with Greenwich Leisure Ltd to open "gym/libraries" (still a work in progress as far as I can see).  In the 2010/11 to 2014/15 period it saw a slight rise in visits, by 0.8%.

The contrast with the massive rise in Brent visits is stark in every case. 

Various different authorities, struggling to limit the damage from central government cuts, and coming from very different starting points and with different strategies can at best tread water.  Brent is the only one to have seen a significant rise.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Cascading Cuts in Brent Housing

Red Brick confirms that there is no central government funding being made available for Council housing.  This shows several things, most notably another example of the central government using local authorities as a dumping ground and shield for the failed outcomes of government policies.  It also demonstrates the sheer folly of Brent Council stampeding into an unconsidered commitment to spend £10 million without securing any guarantees from the government or having any real idea what it is spending the money on. 

As Red Brick says this might come from reserves or the housing revenue account (HRA).  Brent effectively has no reserves of that size so any spend will come from the HRA.  Rents are kept by central government fiat at their current rate, so I guess that means cutting back on repairs and maintenance, or cutting any planned building of new housing stock.

It all illustrates how rushed decisions in one area cascade into poor outcomes in other unrelated areas of policy.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Another Odd Decision by Brent's Planning Committee

Brent's Planning Committee has been getting an increasing reputation for odd decisions during Cllr Muhammed Butt's time as Leader.  The Manor Park Works decision strikes me as another one.  Oddest about it is the voting figure that the Kilburn Times report gives: two councillors in favour, one against, three abstentions.

The Planning Committee has eight members.  To have only two vote in favour and five either absent or abstaining seems rather odd.  It suggests to me that the Committee did not entirely believe its case for rejecting officer recommendation to grant permission, in which case the Developer may well appeal. 

Sunday, 22 October 2017

New Constituencies or Not?

The Boundary Commission has now published proposals for new constituencies across the UK, with dramatic effects in Brent.

Brent Central would be split, with most of it going into a new Willesden and Shepherds Bush seat.  Essentially the new seat would cover the existing Brent Central minus Tokyngton, Dudden Hill, Dollis Hill and Welsh Harp plus Brondesbury and the northern part of Hammersmith and Fulham.

Queens Park and the Brent Kilburn would merge with the existing Westminister North to become "Kilburn".

Most of Brent North would merge with the rest of Brent Central to form a Wembley seat.

Finally a Harrow South and Kenton seat would be formed with the Brent Kenton and Queensbury.

To do all this would require Parliamentary approval in late 2018.  However, there is already speculation that the whole process is going to be restarted from scratch as the Tory government thinks it might be too weak to win the Parliamentary vote.  Were the boundaries to go ahead, a number of sitting MPs including Dawn Butler MP, Barry Gardiner MP and Tulip Siddiq MP would face interesting choices about where to stand. 

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Scrubs Lane Overdevelopment

Unfortunately a last minute work commitment prevented me from attending the committee hearing on 2 Scrubs Lane.  The scale of the proposal is hinted at in the architects' image above, taken looking towards Harlesden.  In reality, I think it will be still more dominant.

New Head at Jesus and Mary

I see that the Kilburn Times have managed a scoop with an interview of the new head teacher at Convent of Jesus and Mary School in Harlesden Louise McGowan.  It is nice to hear some one so enthusiastic about what they do. 

Friday, 20 October 2017

Go Straight to the High Commission

I see that Bertha Joseph is active in appealing for money for the victims of hurricanes.  I would gently suggest that, given her record, it would be best for her not to be involved.  I would suggest going straight to the High Commission instead. 

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Council Tax Reduction Scheme Still in Place

One of the papers before the Brent Council Cabinet on Monday will be the annual review of the Council Tax Support scheme.  This replaced the national scheme back in 2012/13, and I had a hand in designing it.  

The report states:

"A fundamental  review of the current  Brent scheme  was undertaken in 2015, and concluded  that in terms of legal, financial  and  equitable robustness, the current scheme can be considered as a success.  There have been no legal challenges brought  against the  scheme,  and no unforeseen impact was identified.  There was no perceived appetite for radical change or a departure from the main principles governing the scheme at that time."

The report also notes that the alignment of housing benefit and the reduction scheme reduces the bureaucracy of applying, which must be welcome to many harassed residents.  However, it notes that this advantage is eroded as Universal credit is rolled out:  

"However it should be noted that as more  of the  working-age  caseload moves  onto Universal Credit (UC) over the next few years,  this advantage will be lost as claimants will be required to claim UC from the DWP and CTS from the Council."

While this may be a minor detail compared to some of the horror stories I have heard with Universal Credit, it is nonetheless regrettable.  

Finally, I have often noted that a number of people are very blase about possible legal challenges.  I think rather differently, having gone through a judicial review which was extraordinarily burdensome despite the Council being found lawful in every detail of its decision.  Nonetheless the officers writing the report give as a major reason for their "no change" recommendation "the risk opening up the scheme as a whole to challenge from external organisations and pressure groups." 

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Debt and the Young

An excellent survey by the BBC has revealed some extremely bleak information on debt.  The fourth chart is particularly interesting showing a very strong link between youth and indebtedness.  It echoes work done by other organisations

It might cause the current government to reconsider whether its policy of refusing younger people to claim certain kinds of benefit is in fact sensible.  Not least, crippling people with more debt at a young age than their predecessors could have all sorts of effects going forward, damaging their prospects as the cohort ages, and possibly affecting a major cultural change in attitudes.  It also goes some way to explaining why many people think that age is the new class