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Monday, 31 July 2017

Is Brent Council Getting a Good Deal from Quintain?

Right at the end of last week's Brent Council Cabinet there is a document recommending a £17.8 million spend on the public realm around Brent Civic Centre.  That is a lot of money by any standard. 

I have long been an advocate of a high quality public realm around the Civic Centre, and Wembley Library in particular, so you might think I would simply welcome this.  In fact I have already welcomed the existing surroundings.  The burden of the changes would partly fall on the Council and partly on Quintain, and it leaves me wondering whether the Council is getting the best possible deal.

I am not not reassured by the opacity of Quintain's relationship with the Council, or what often strike me as the perverse judgements of Cllr Muhammed Butt in planning matters, or the degree to which the Planning Committee is independent of the Council Leader's influence.  The days when a Council Leader was subject to an investigation for a (false) accusation that she was seeking to influence a planning decision appear to be far behind us. 

The contribution to Quintain is phrased as being in return for concessions, but it is not clear what these are or why Brent wants to change its previous policies.  In the past, there have been strong pressures for more parking spaces near the Civic Centre, with little apparent understanding that urban planners regard the provision of more spaces as just generating more car use and therefore more pressure for parking spaces.  I am really not at all clear that the current political leadership of Brent Council is sophisticated enough to negotiate with a major company such as Quintain

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Brent Chief Executive on Housing Investment

Further to yesterday's post, the Chief Executive's letter makes clear the difficult state of housing finance in Brent.  It correctly blames certain government policies such as the central fixing of rents and the "high value void" sell off policy as undermining the finances that maintain the condition of Council Housing, but the chances of getting any money from central government have simply been thrown away.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Funding and Fire Safety

Brent Council is currently rushing through £10 million of spend on "fire safety" without knowing what it is going to be spent on.  A report was brought before the Cabinet on 24 July without the normal notice period of three/four months on the pretext that the whole thing is of the utmost urgency.  This recommends a programme to specify the works.

One would have thought specifying the work that needs to be done should precede spending the money, but the Council has already approved the spend at full Council.  That report says that the £10 million is equivalent to all the fire safety spend for Brent Council's dwindling housing stock over the past five years.  If it is really the case that that amount needs to be spent now, there must be a serious backlog that has been allowed to build up.  If so, councillors should be asking why such a backlog has built up and whether people have been put at risk. 

The chances of ever recovering this money from central government are negligible because the government has a default that Council's should rely on their own resources.  The DCLG web site states"The government’s expectation is that, as landlords, local authorities and housing associations will fund measures designed to make a building fire safe, and will draw on their own resources to do so."
Brent's decision to spend the money has effectively undermined any effort to lobby central government.

That means the money will come from the tenants either in higher rents, or via cut back in investment.  Really something that should not have been rushed through as a panic measure.  More detail on how local authority housing finance works can be found on the Red Brick Blog

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Employment Tribunal Victory

Yesterday's victory for Unison on Employment Tribunal Fees is a huge victory in preventing victimisation of people.  Amidst so much gloom it provides welcome relief to everyone except unscrupulous employers.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Returning to Controlled Parking Zones

I mentioned a hardy perennial policy proposal up at the last Brent Cabinet meeting, but not an equally hoary example, controlled parking zones.  These have been effectively frozen for several years, but the new report recommends either changing the existing CPZs or reintroducing new ones.

Significantly no one seems to advocate their abolition. 

More CPZs are likely to spread across the Borough over the next few years.  Partly, this will be incremental, partly down to new developments particularly in Brent Cross and Colindale, and partly down to what I would say was a seriously misjudged decision to expand operating hours at Wembley Stadium

Monday, 24 July 2017

Gap in the HRA

Tonight Brent Council's Cabinet meets and discusses future financial planning.  Among the concerns are the Housing Revenue Account (HRA), which is essentially the money related to Council properties.  Income is likely to go down as the government has prescribed a rent reduction and the number of properties is dwindling. 

As far as I can see the document pays no attention to the planned enormous increase in fire safety spending (up by 400%).  Given the limit on rents, this increase is going to force a reduction in general repairs, and or any new build and this should be acknowledged in forward planning.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

SME Task Group

Brent Scrutiny has a task group report on encouraging small and medium sized businesses (SMEs).  I fear it is pretty short of positive policy proposals. Although limited, there are a number of things that Councils can do to encourage business such as: improve the public realm in High Streets to attract shoppers, use procurement in a way that is friendly to SMEs and helps "train them up" for contract bidding, hosting a variety of information and support functions including those available in public libraries, using meanwhile uses to keep footfall in Town centres, using intelligent planning and licencing powers to ensure a good mix of uses in High Streets, encourage life long learning in different forms in both schools and public libraries, and considering business needs when setting charges for things like parking controls.

It is a pity that the Task Group did not take the opportunity to make any specific recommendations on these.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Returning to a Zombie Proposal, Bulky Item Collections

Monday's Cabinet papers included a real old stager under the "New Options" appendix. This was charging for bulky waste collection.  The free collection policy was established under the 1998-2006 Labour administration, abolished by the Tory Lib Dem coalition of 2006-2010, and reinstated by the incoming Labour administration in 2010.  Introducing charging was considered by Labour in 2014/15 but again rejected. 

Officers are estimated the income at £250 thousand, although nothing like this has ever been obtained in the past.  When the charges were last introduced in 2007, the revenue was only £53k, and it went down subsequently.  Given that experience, there really is no excuse for Council officers to put forward an estimated income of £250k now. 

Mary Turner

I was sad to learn of the passing away of Mary Turner, long time President of the GMB and also a fixture in Brent politics for as long as I can remember.  Although she was unsuccessful in her bid to become MP for Brent East in 2001 she served more than sixty years as a trade unionist, including twenty years as GMB President.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Getting it Badly Wrong

I have been speculating about the election results, but perhaps a more important issue for the next six months is what is going to happen to the economy.

My view is that it has been drastically mismanaged since George Osborne embarked on his failed austerity project in 2010.  Conventional economists predicted this failure back in 2010, and it always seemed clear that either Osborne didn't understand conventional economics or he was putting his ideological belief in a smaller state ahead of sensible economic policy.

The result was that the UK undertook a sharp fiscal tightening at the same time as maintaining a very loose monetary policy.  The timing of this meant that growth was very poor, tax revenues declined and budget deficit worsened; the opposite of what Osborne set out as his objectives.

Several years later the political authority for yet more austerity is crumbling, as even the Tories are beginning to admit.  Indeed the scrabble among the hitherto defenders of austerity in the Cabinet to back pay rises for the public sector workers they so despise is one of the most striking aspects of the post election landscape.  This collapse was probably inevitable as it was clear that austerity could not continue forever.

Over the last several years a demand for better wages has been building up and is now turning into a recruitment and retention crisis for key workers.  At the same time institutions such as local government have been cut back to the point where they have difficulty functioning at all (as Kensington has graphically illustrated).  This looks like public services going toward catastrophic break down, which force ministers to spend more money at just the moment when that would be most damaging for the economy as it will fuel a surge in inflation _ the opposite of the Keynesian approach.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Tony Blair and Brexit

Tony Blair is regarded by many people these days as automatically discredited in everything he says.  This is a pity, as his most recent analysis of the UK's place in the world has many penetrating insights.  The centrality of the Single Market to future prosperity and the sheer confusion of an election where Labour can lose in Stoke on Trent and Middlesborough but win in Canterbury and Kensington.  Incidentally, his suggestion that he is "dubious" about the effect of Labour's ambiguity on the EU is borne out by some House of Commons Library analysis which suggested pretty much no relationship whatever between the size of the Labour vote and the size of the Leave vote.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Carillion Withdrawing from Libraries?

Carillion has withdrawn from running its libraries contract in Hounslow.  I suspect this has something to do with its dire financial position, which has seen its Chief Executive quit.  The firm is likely to be exiting non-core businesses and running libraries is a relatively new and small area for it.  Hounslow has been developing a policy of taking services in-house (e.g. rubbish collections) for some time now, so this is a natural enough extension of that. 

The news is significant for public libraries outside Hounslow as it also runs libraries in Croydon, Ealing and Harrow (Ealing and Harrow in a linked contract).  Those Councils will now need to decide how to react.  At one stage Brent was mooted as being included in the Ealing/Harrow contract.  Deciding not to do that has dodged a bullet for Brent. 

Post Grenfell Housing Spending

At last full Council, the councillors voted to spend an extra ten million pounds on fire safety measures, and lost no time in issuing a self congratulatory press release on the subject. 

I don't disagree with the substance of this.  If that is the amount needed to make Brent's buildings safe than so be it, but there seems to be no appropriate scrutiny of what the Council is doing.  The decision was off the back of a supplementary report rather than the main agenda so I am not sure how much opportunity the councillors had to digest what they were being asked to do.

The amount authorised (£10 million) appears to be about five times the annual capital spend on fire safety since 2012.  If the Council suddenly has to increase its fire safety spending by 400%, councillors should be asking why such a backlog has built up.  If, as Brent claim, the existing buildings are all safe I don't see the urgency case for immediate investment.  The government is conducting a review of fire safety standards.  The Grenfell Inquiry will specifically address fire safety and may well lead to specific recommendations which cannot, at this moment, be predicted.  We can therefore expect the relevant standards to be changed fairly soon, and Brent may need to go back over the same ground again to make sure it is compliant. 

I suspect the real urgency here is the need to look as if something is being done rather than a proper assessment of need.  In other words the money is for a political gesture rather than a genuine concern over fire safety.

The second point to be made is that Council Housing funds this spending from what is called Housing Revenue Account (HRA) spending.  The money comes from tenants rents, rather than general Council spend.  This system was set up so that Council Housing could have a rational considered business plan.  A sudden increase in capital works will lead to either much higher rents, reduced repairs or reduced spending on new housing.  Given that the number of Council properties in Brent is dwindling, the HRA is likely to see lower revenues in future.  Being forced to take on more debt when income is going down will make the properties harder to manage in future.  There will probably be fewer repairs, and it will be harder to get affordable housing.  The Council may even have to return Right to Buy receipts.

I am not sure that most of the councillors actually understood this. 

Friday, 14 July 2017

Why was 2017 Election Turnout so High?

Thinking more about the General Election result, one of its striking results (along with the return of two party politics in most of the UK) is the relatively high turnout of 68.7%.  This is the highest turnout since Tony Blair's great victory in 1997

One might ask how it happened.

I can think of three possible scenarios.

(a) The first is a sea change in voter attitudes.  It is arguable that the EU referendum gave a graphic demonstration to people that voting really mattered.  You went to bed apparently securely in the EU, and woke up the next morning to a crowing Nigel Farage declaring that Brexit was now irreversible.  That is certainly a stark answer to the many people I have met who feel that voting does not change anything.  Perhaps the EU referendum was a watershed moment in the same way that the Tories reputation for economic competence was broken in 1992, or the Iraq War permanently damaged Labour's reputation in 2003.
(b) It could be a change in campaign techniques.  Labour staffers are certainly claiming that 2017 saw some game changing innovations which had the effect of raising Labour turnout.  The main weakness of this argument is that the Tory turnout also rose.  The main argument in favour is that younger voters who are generally seen as most engaged in the online world, and least engaged with "traditional" techniques, saw their turnout go up by 21%
(c) Both the main Party Leaders are "marmite" politicians.  Theresa May was seen by some of her supporters as unassailable but also by others as robotic, locked into a hard Brexit strategy, wedded to a failed austerity project and so on.  Jeremy Corbyn attracts devotion among a section of the election, but his appeal is literally incomprehensible to others.  Perhaps the combination of devotion in some and repugnance in others combined to push up turnout.  

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Age and Class

Seema Malhotra MP has recently been arguing that, in explaining the last General Election result, age is becoming more important and class less so.  This view has a lot to be said for it.  Labour support has gone up among ABs, although the Tories retain an edge.  Equally Tory support has risen among DEs although Labour retains its traditional lead.

However, it is also possible to see age as an expression of a sort class.  Older voters are more likely to be home owners, who tend to be more Conservative.  They are also more likely to be private landlords, albeit on a modest scale.  Younger voters, meanwhile, are more likely to be trapped in "generation rent" where the combination of the "gig economy" and very high rent and service costs for housing combine to put them in a position where they can't save enough for a deposit or demonstrate a regular enough income to get a mortgage.

Public policy is often designed to appeal to either renters or to owner occupiers.  Landlords may well have policy preferences that directly opposed to renters.  Below is a chart I have plagiarised adapted from some recent House of Commons Library research.  It shows those who have paid off their mortgages (also most likely to be private landlords I suspect) are the most pro-Tory group, whereas renters have a strong Labour bias.

This is just one more aspect of what was a very confusing and hard to understand election result.  

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

The Dangers of Political Hubris

The reasons behind the General Election result are still wide open, but many people in the Labour Party seem to think it was a victory.  This is only true if you think of it as a Dunkirk-like avoidence of what the time the General Election was called looked set to be a complete disaster. 

One perfectly plausible way to look at it is as a warning around political hubris.  May thought she was guaranteed an enhanced majority.  She therefore (a) made the whole election as personalised on herself as possible (b) Stripped the Tory manifesto of key "offers" to vital groups of voters (like the Triple lock for pensioners) so as not to bind her hands in the future (c) Ran a lacklustre campaign that pretty much failed to make a positive case on the assumption that many voters would feel they had nowhere else to go.

The results were not to her liking, and have left people speculating about when she is going to go.

The Labour Party seems to me to be in danger of now throwing away its chances of turning its escape into a victory by:

(a) Assuming it is going to be easy to get the 60 odd seats it needs to win an overall majority, when some of those seats actually have enhanced Tory majorities and are therefore harder to win.
(b) Assuming that a majority can achieved with a "one more heave" approach (in the elegant term of the October 1974 Liberal campaign).  I would argue that once the Labour Party is once again seen as a possible "government in waiting" it will be subject to much greater scrutiny over whether it can pay for its promises, what its stance on the European Union is, and whether it can be trusted with the UK's security.
(c) Assuming that it can afford a lapse into internal faction fighting as relieved Corbynistas look to conduct witch hunts against specific MPs who they feel have failed to toe the line, when it is something of a cliche that divided parties put off the electorate.  Indeed this is all the more surprising given that many Corbyn supporters have argued that it was the obvious disagreement between the MPs and Jeremy Corbyn that underlay the Labour Party's awful opinion poll ratings up the General Election. 

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

CNJ on Chalcots Estate

The Camden New Journal is going to town with an investigation into the evacuation of the Chalcots estate, including querying the role of PFI in refurbishing the Towers.  It is worth recalling that the PFI only became necessary because the "Decent Homes" money was turned down as part of the row rejecting ALMO status, a row I would see as a tragedy of misinformation.

The PFI scheme was then backed by, notably, Glenda Jackson who saw it as the only remaining way to secure decent housing for her constituents.  The CNJ is now querying whether more money should have been committed although a standard (and I think accurate) complaint about PFIs in general is that they offer poor value for money.  The Camden PFI was initially rejected for this very reason.

I have sympathy for decision makers who find themselves making these choices and then find themselves retrospectively attacked by the same people who criticised the original deal for opposite reasons.  Whilst it is still not public exactly why Camden took the dramatic decision to evacuate, it really does feel like a cheap shot to be constantly hostile but on widely differing grounds.  It is worth recalling that as far as is publicly known there may have been issue with the capital works at all.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Council Tax and Business Rates

The bleak future of local government finance is laid for the Scrutiny Committee in a recent presentation.  The presentation will go forward tomorrow.

Among the points I found of interest were the growing relative importance of Council Tax as government grant is phased out.  Those authorities who chose to freeze, or even cut, Council Tax will find that they can no longer recover that revenue.  It is permanently lost because there is an effective cap on percentage increases, now about 4%.  I have explained this trend before

The second thing that strikes me is the idea of London pool for business rates, which sounds attractive but hard to make work in practice.  I would expect an on the ball administration to be out in front on this issue, explaining it and trying to create support for it.  Sadly, Cllr Muhammed Butt does not seem to have spotted the importance of this.  Let us hope he does in so time.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Closing Down Shisha Bars

Tom Miller is frustratingly vague in saying what powers he needs against Shisha bars.  These  have been a nuisance in Brent for years.  In some cases that I am aware of the owners have even been threatening towards their neighbours.  Brent have developed a planning regime unwelcoming to shisha bars, but what more needs to be done?

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Job Centre Merger

The DWP has a plan to consolidate its job centres on one site.  Brent Council is quoted in criticism in the story despite the fact that the Council followed a similar logic in relation to its own revenue and benefit department.  When that body temporarily housed an office at Harlesden Job Centre, it found it much under used.  The planned facility at Willesden Library was abandoned for a similar reason.  

The argument is that as more and more people are active online for all sorts of reasons, they no longer need the (more expensive) face to face access.

If Brent Council really feels this logic does not hold, it would be better advised to offer some of its buildings to offer temporary "pop up" access.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Return to Mitre Bridge

Work is proceeding on Mitre Bridge on Scrubs Lane, which is a pain for those of us who regularly use that route.  In the longer term however, strengthening the bridge offers the prospect of reduced traffic through the centre of Harlesden as vehicles can go through Park Royal instead.  It also makes it easier for businesses on the Hythe Road estate which I know are annoyed by the delays they experience going through the Town Centre. 

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Royal Oak Re-opened

I am glad to see that the Royal Oak is operating again after its closure earlier in the year.  Having good venues is really important to the success of Harlesden Town Centre as a whole.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Planning Gain Transparency

I have been somewhat critical of Brent Council's governance recently, so it is good to name an area where it has become more transparent and accountable.  This is is in terms of the distribution of s106 funds (or planning gain).  These are the monies paid by developers to offset various negative impacts from development, and they used to be shrouded in mystery.  The listing of projects in a public document with the reasons for them is a big improvement.  

I notice that there are a number of small sums allocated to limiting traffic problems in Tokyngton, but I doubt whether they will be enough to offset the effect of the intensification of the use of Wembley Stadium.  This is an issue that the Council will be forced to return to long after the councillors behind that controversial decision are gone. 

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Difficulties of Local Government

Yesterday's post on the failures at Kensington Council shouldn't be taken as an indication that I underestimate the difficulties that councillors face.  On the contrary I think they are much greater than many councillors and MPs realise, not least in the possibility of legal action

All the more reason for the systems to be robust and the personnel to be skilled at what they have to do. 

Saturday, 1 July 2017

When Councils Collapse

The extraordinary failure of Kensington Council regarding Grenfell Tower has become symbolic of a much wider failure of the political system and rightly so.  Partly this is down to the horror of the events, partly down to the symbolism of the burnt out tower still louring over West London.

Even government ministers seem to have belatedly understood that the failure of Kensington Council is linked to their own policies.  As Karen Buck points out, the kind of budget cuts that local government has endured were bound to reduce its capacity.  This was predictable and predicted.  Kensington Council appears to have been in the grip of what until recently was a one party Tory state that regarded the poor as irrelevant or as a group to be wiped out from "desirable" areas and warehoused in some vaguely defined place far away.

There are now reports that suggest that this ideology directly impacted decisions over Grenfell Tower in a way that may have helped lay the groundwork for the disaster.  This is an ideology that confuses the cheapest price with value for money. 

This failure of competence has been accompanied by a failure of accountability.  The Leader of Kensington Council has finally resigned, but only after trying to sacrifice his Chief Executive instead, and only after further possibly unlawful attempts to block access to public meetings.  The sheer scale of the dysfunction has led to calls for Commissioners to be appointed to run what will be seen as the UK's ultimately failed Council.

What Does All this Mean for Brent Council?
It would be comforting to think that Kensington is uniquely bad, but I fear such a view is far too complacent.  Just as Kensington has been subject to significant cuts so has Brent.  I think it probable that Brent has probably been more effective in trying to maintain its financial resilience than Kensington, where apparently the Tory councillors felt building up a huge reserve whilst reducing the tax base of the authority was a pretty snazzy idea.

Brent took a number of tough decisions to limit spending in the 2010-2014 period, as well as a number of efforts to maximise revenues.  The big exception was Council Tax, which largely at the insistence of Cllr Muhammed Butt was frozen (except for very poor people).  This has done long term damage to the finances of the Council and pushed it into more cuts and relying more on expedients to keep its finances afloat.

Despite this, I wonder whether Brent Council still has the ability to react swiftly to disasters as it did when the Tornado struck Kensal Rise.

The second question that strikes me about Kensington is the refusal to be accountable or to engage with the public.  Decisions appear to have been made away from public view, and councillors appear to have been unwilling to face the public.  Within the Kensington Tory group, no one seems to have challenged the Leader's behaviour.  It apparently took pressure from Downing Street to make him resign.  The end result has been deeply damaging for the long term reputation of Kensington Council, and probably the personal reputations of the councillors who have failed to speak out.  I wish I had confidence that councillors in Brent effectively question decisions made in  their name, but I can't say that I do, and one day that may come back to haunt them.