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Thursday, 27 April 2017

Is Brent Council Too Bureaucratic?

Returning to a comment on this post about grants, which asks why Brent Council does not access the same funds that seem to have been tapped in the case of two of the Borough's "Community Library" projects leads me to a number of thoughts. 

The first barrier is a straightforward rules based one, that many grant giving bodies simply don't allow public bodies like Councils to bid for their grants.  The argument is that public authorities have there own methods of funding (Public Works Loan Board loans for example), and that they should use those rather than crowd out smaller voluntary groups from accessing funding that is inevitably outstripped by supply. 

As well as total prohibition, a number of grant giving bodies may impose rules that make it more difficult for a Council to get a grant.  For example, a Council may be expected to provide a higher level of match funding.  It may be required to meet criteria that sit uneasily with a public sector ethos (meeting certain religious restrictions for instance).

More interestingly perhaps is the possibility of a difference in culture, where the merits of a public sector approach have as their flipside certain demerits that make it harder to apply for grants.  What I would see as in many cases the advantages of a good public sector body can become disadvantages in this context.  Councils can be very risk averse, not moving until it is clear that a decision has been fully risk assessed, that it is legally grounded, openly debated and so on.  Councils in particular are subject to democratic oversight that should make them better decision makers, but can also slow them down and make them less flexible.  All this, depending on your viewpoint can be seen as overly bureaucratic or as properly respectful of public resources.

Voluntary groups can be more flexible in bending to a grant givers' conditions and more like social entrepreneurs in quickly targeting fleeting opportunities.  In an ideal world, I think an effective political leadership would join the advantages of both approaches.  However, it is worth remembering that the "social entrepreneur" role can also have pitfalls.  Risks can be ignored, objections unreasonably brushed aside and corners cut in ways that can lead to problems in either the short or the longer term. 

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The Rise and Fall of ALMOs

An interesting map of London ALMOs in 2009 and 2017 was published in Brent Council's last full Council agenda.  One can see at a glance that most of London had adopted ALMOs by 2009, but abandoned them later on.

The reason is money.

As I have explained before, the previous Labour government offered Councils lots of money to do up their Council housing if they agreed to an ALMO arrangement.  By 2017, this incentive had long since disappeared so the Councils just started taking the properties back in house.  It does show some of the demerits of that kind of policy making.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Harlesden Town Centre Plans

Following yesterday's post on Town Centres, I though it was worth looking at Harlesden Town Centre in particular. 

The most striking thing about the Council's latest document is that it does not seem to build on the Council's previous work effectively.  I suspect that this is linked to the turnover in Council staff being so enormous that no one linked to the extensive community discussions in 2010 is still around, so whoever wrote the new document just isn't really aware of what has gone on before.  This is a pity as it probably involves rewriting stuff that has been written before.  For example, there is no reference in the new document to the Harlesden Town Charter and its objectives.

Once again the absence of Harlesden Library and BACES from the plans are rather glaring, and the apparent unawareness of local people's long standing committment (and often real success) to improving Harlesden/Kensal Green's green spaces is striking.  The various problems caused in a busy town centre by licensing, planning, noise nuisance, shisha bars, fast food outlets and so on don't really appear. Even the traffic issues aren't really discussed. 

I also get a sense that, although the Old Oak Common area is mentioned, there is no real mechanism to think about influencing it, or indeed influencing the area around Willesden Junction

Monday, 24 April 2017

Town Centres in Brent

Tonight's Brent Council Cabinet has an interesting paper on town centres.  It touches on various themes that will be familiar to anybody who has thought about this subject _ smarter cities technologies, driverless cars, the importance of securing a town centre as a destination, the public realm and so on.

It also suggests bringing back Town Centre Managers, which Brent cut in 2011.  Once again I am struck by the change in policy not being linked to any particular rationale.  Do people on the Council disagree with the old policy, have they critiqued it or have they simply forgotten about it?

The other thing that strikes me is how this document appears to have been drawn up without thinking about libraries policy.  Following the Brent Libraries Transformation Project all Brent libraries are in Town Centres.  They are obvious places to base the Council's activities from.  The report mentions "cultural activities" as well as digital inclusion and public health.  These are all areas where it is widely claimed that libraries can and should play a leading role.

In particular, the document speaks of "work space" in terms of meanwhile uses, but omits mention of the possible use of places like Willesden Green Library Centre for this.  This is despite its previous use in the Library Lab project, the known benefits of co-location, its rather obvious provision of large numbers of computers and free WiFi, its existing use as a community hub and its established use for various training and educational activities. 

For example, the report rightly points to a worry that 67% of businesses in Wembley are not online, well above the national average.  In the days of the wireless Internet that becomes ever more important, as shoppers may use their iphone to direct their shopping.  Why not use Brent libraries for courses in how Brent shops can advertise themselves digitally?  The shops are near the library, the IT equipment is in the library and the libraries service have the connections to find instructors.  It would all fall under one of the strnads of the SCL "universal offer".

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Furness Pocket Park Tidy Up

Some one has had similar thoughts to me about tidying up the area by Furness Pocket Park.  The paving just by the edge of the park has been filled in.  Even though this all looks a bit makeshift, it should make the park easier to clean.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

South Kilburn and Falcon Public House

Monday's Cabinet meeting will see a paper on the Falcon House development which at last finds the Council actually trying to explain the benefits of redevelopment to people in Kilburn.  This is long overdue, and presumably is an adjustment to the Granville controversy. However, I am still far from clear as to what the process was by which these objectives were set

Friday, 21 April 2017

Tricycle Theatre Capital Grant

The Tricycle Theatre seems to have hit the jackpot with Brent Council, being offered a grant of up to £1 million in the next Brent Council Cabinet papers towards its renovation project.  As a long term supporter of the Tricycle, I am pleased for it, but I do wonder what the logic of Brent Council's behaviour is.

Back in 2011, there was a cut in the Tricycle Theatre's Council grant (although I think that was more to do with a personal vendetta of one of the councillors against the then Council Leader), and in 2014 a proposal was published to abolish it entirely.  I saw this as a retrograde step since, the Tricycle seems to me to be a key asset in the wider regeneration of Kilburn High Road. Happily, it was subsequently reversed.  Brent Council also stayed silent when the Theatre was under attack over the Jewish Film Festival. 

Suddenly, Brent Council has gone from this kind of gradual distancing to handing out a sizeable capital grant.  Why?

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Community Libraries Come Back to the Brent Council Cabinet

Coming up at the next Brent Cabinet is a paper on Brent's policy on Community Libraries, which strikes me as being very similar to the one passed in the Libraries Transformation Project back in April 2011.  Given the obvious success of Brent Libraries that is probably unsurprising. 

The new document tells us that:

"The Council has reviewed its working relationship with the four independent community library groups in the borough in order to agree and implement partnership arrangements. These libraries are constitutionally and operationally independent of the Council and do not form part of its statutory provision of library services. They are run by local voluntary and community sector organisations who have a strong sense of independence and individual visions for their community libraries." (3.1)

In other words they are in no sense part of Brent Council, and the Council has no financial liability for them, and no committment to manage them in any way.  That is thoroughly sensible.

Two of the groups faced up to this long ago, with both the Cricklewood (FOCL) and the Kensal Rise (FKRL) organisations raising their own funding and making their own decisions without any reference to the Council.  FOCL have not released any figures on their funding but they have largely completed their building, which (unlike the old Cricklewood Library) is DDA compliant.  FKRL have reportedly raised £160k in capital, an impressive sum which has come almost entirely from sources other than the Council and therefore directly adds to the social capital of the Borough.  The altered Kensal Rise building should also be DDA compliant.  Again this will be an improvement on the old building. 

However there are still worries about the other two buildings.  It is no coincidence that the Council remains entangled as the landlord in both cases.  In Barham, Paul Lorber appears to be trying to play the Council for either financial gain or as part of his political manoeuvrings prior to the 2018 elections.  In Preston, the existing group appears to be given an undue influence that does not sit easily with either the Council's financial obligations or the building's ACV status.  Such arrangements can lead to ugly rumours about the integrity of Council decision making even where there is no legally proven case against them. 

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

General Election 2017

Assuming that the General Election goes ahead, Brent is likely to see its three incumbent MPs stand again.  More interesting will be the position of the parties without incumbent MPs.  Will the former candidates restand?

Incidentally, those to whom this General Election comes as a surprise should try rereading Yvette Cooper's labourlist column in 2016.

Can Tokyngton Keep Moving?

Brent's Planning Committee is considering a formidable range of building projects near the Stadium next Wednesday.  This is on top of quite a range of projects that have already been approved.  If they all go ahead at once there will be an impressive amount of construction going on in northern Tokyngton, just as the area tries to cope with the effects of the extended use of the Stadium

I think residents are right to fear the consequences in terms of the impact on their lives, and I shall be very surprised if it does not become a major issue in the 2018 elections.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Assets of Community Value

I have been wary of assets of community value (ACV) as they appear to add a whole new layer of complexity to the fate of a particular property without really really having much in the way of benefits.  Local Government Lawyer goes through some of these here

The limitations of the approach are indicated by the inclusion of the Stonebridge Adventure Playground on Brent's ACV list despite its demolition.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Brent's Bleak Housing Record

The Guardian has a bleak report on housing in Brent and elsewhere here.  It is based on a fuller report here.  I am struck how once again the Council is simply portrayed as villainous in the report, rather than an organization responding to its only limited powers and resources.

Of course the debate on BHP on 20th April will address none of these issues, which are ultimately about the mismatch between supply and demand.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Brent Libraries Visits and Loans Up Yet Again

The annual figures for Brent libraries visits and loans are up yet again.  Visits went up by 1.3% on the previous year and loans increased by 0.5%, so a more modest increase than in previous years.  Here is a graph showing visits since the decision to pursue the Libraries Transformation Project in 2011. 

That is a contrast between 1,506,982 visits when there were twelve libraries in 2011, and 2,436,698 visits with six libraries today.  That represents a rise of just over 61% over the course of the entire period.

A similar graph for loans shows a more modest rise from 985,590 loans from twelve libraries back in 2011 to 1,063,996 loans in 2016/17.  That is an eight per cent rise. 

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Willesden Library as a White Elephant

At a Labour Party meeting recently, I encountered someone who was still virulently against the new library in Willesden Green, referring to it as a "white elephant".  This is the first time I have encountered criticism of the new library since it opened.  Most of its critics went quiet once it was up and running, and many of their objections were shown up as just illusory

The "White Elephant" line is just untrue.  It is reasonable to call it a prestigious development, from the same architectural practice that has just produced New Scotland Yard.  Yet it is cheaper to run than the old building, and was always designed as self financing.  In other words, the sale of housing at the back paid for the nice new building at the front in a similar way to Clapham Library.

It is also worth remembering what the old Willesden Library was actually like.  Here is a description form November 2009 by the "Willesden Herald":

Friday, November 20, 2009

Willesden Library Centre: Filth and dereliction in Brent

Gigi's closed months ago and is still empty. Now the Bellevue Cinema has closed and the fitments have been ripped out. Last night the centre's mens' toilet was in the most nauseatingly filthy condition. Dirty paper was strewn around the floor, there was fluid underfoot. In one cubicle somebody had closed the lid and defecated on top of it. In the other the bowl was clogged and foul. The word disgusting is inadequate to describe the state of the place. The people responsible for the filth are horrible lowlifes but what about the people who run the place, i.e. Brent Council? The council tax this year for a house near the library centre, in Band E, is £1672.93. It's not rocket science - compare the Tricycle Theatre in neighbouring Camden council control also in Brent [correction], or the Southbank Centre or even a typical motorway services, or the loos at Victoria Station. Then ask yourself why Brent gives us nothing like that and instead something more like the opening scenes from Slumdog Millionaire.

Sounds disgusting doesn't it?

Both the cafe and the cinema ceased to operate long before the building was demolished, and it really had a rather run down look.  The commercial failure of the old building had a lot to do with its dead frontage, which contrasts with the new shared space outside the building (more images here).     

Monday, 10 April 2017

The Complexity of International Trade

I only recently caught up with this piece by Paul Krugman. Partly it is interesting for what it says about international trade. 

In the several large economies he cites, a large proportion of the apparent value added element of export goods actually comes from other countries.  So, for instance, he argues that cars assembled in Mexico and exported to the USA have a large proportion of their components actually made in the USA.  Hence a Trump protectionist policy would have the effect of damaging US component manufacturers as well as the assembling plants in Mexico. 

That is rather the opposite of what Trump supporters assume, but it is also something in line with what the Select Committee for Exiting the EU found about Brexit.  A UK car assembler might also find many of the components are sourced from around the EU.  Higher tariff would damage both the assembler and the supply chain.  Again that seems a rather more sophisticated view of how the modern economy works than the way it appears to David Davis, who seems to have a more zero sum view of trade.

The other striking point is his suggestion that Trump is in an impasse from which he might seek a "Malvinas" solution, in an article posted some time ahead of the attack on Syria

Sunday, 9 April 2017

We Too Are Giants

As I write We Too Are Giants is going on in Willesden Library.  This is part of the Tricycle Theatre's 2017 takeover programme.  It is also the kind of thing I find very hard to imagine happening prior to the Libraries Transformation Project, not least because the old Willesden Library would be unable to accommodate such activity.

The Tricycle is doing this kind of outreach partly because their capital project is underway.  This involves remodelling the Tricycle auditorium around such radical concepts as having the seating angled towards the stage and having access for disabled people.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Queens Parade, Willesden

Queens Parade, Willesden, is best known as an experimental meanwhile space, an experiment that was very successful.  It is now part of a planning application that I suspect will will be far less popular.  The proposal is for a seven and eight storey building that will be used for student accomodation.

I think that is frankly too big.  Brent has a policy of concentrating tall buildings in its five growth areas for a reason _ to protect the lower density developments in the rest of the Borough.  There is a creeping pressure on Willesden to accept bigger and bigger blocks.  Electric House was one of those, which I can accept because of its position at the head of a street.  Similarly with the Erin Court development from a much earlier time, but The Queensbury redevelopment was rightly refused as much too big. 

The provision of more student housing is also questionable in an area that already suffers from an extremely transient population.  In the past, Brent planning committee refused student accommodation at the former Spotted Dog development citing this as a reason.  The logic behind this has not changed.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Brexit's Dangerous Direction

Yesterday's Observer carried a story that the former Tory Party Leader has raised the threat of war against Spain.  Doesn't this illustrate just how much damagethe referendum vote has done, and how much damage the "negotiations" are doing?  Who would have thought a few years ago that a former Tory Leader would be seriously threatening war against a fellow democracy, EU member and NATO member in Western Europe?

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Willesden Library Cafe Open

As I mentioned yesterday, Willesden Library finally has an open, functioning Cafe.  Cafe facilities have been an important part of the success of Wembley Library, and I have no doubt will contribute to a rise in usage at Willesden as it gets going. 

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Willesden Library Cafe Opens

At last, the cafe at Willesden Library is actually open.  It has been a long time coming. I shall try to post some pictures later on.