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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

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Willesden Library Cafe

Judging from the half year figures I published on Monday, the new cafe in Willesden Library doesn't seem to have been as effective as I hoped in boosting numbers in the Library centre.  Perhaps, it will become more effective in drawing people in as it develops.  It is now open six days a week. 

Monday, 16 October 2017

Latest Update on Brent Library Figures 2017

The first half figures for Brent Libraries in 2017 are now published, and they show little change from the previous half year.  Loans are down slightly, and visits are up a little.  The run of dramatic increases as a result of the Libraries Transformation Project has therefore come to an end as I predicted

The full figures are:

First Half (1 Apr-30 Sept)               2016                       2017                       % Growth

Loans                                                532,749              528,729                            -0.8%
Visits                                              1,204,502          1,238,246                             2.8%

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Wrong Report in the Kilburn Times Regarding Bertha Joseph

I have just seen this report in the Kilburn Times about former councillor Bertha Joseph.  At the time of writing, the Kilburn Times states that the allegations against Bertha Joseph were "false".  I imagine the piece is based on a conversation with Bertha herself.  Whilst that may be her memory; the reality is quite different.  

The allegations against were that she diverted donations made to charity to her own use, and failed to report them.  This led the Brent Standards Committee to suspend her for six months, the maximum penalty then available for misconduct by councillors.  This suspension occurred in late 2009, although the breaches occurred in her Mayoral Year some time before.  Bertha Joseph then exercised her right to appeal, which had the effect of the punishment being suspended whilst the legal process ran its course.  As I recall the appeal was not so much against the facts of the case as the harshness of the punishment.  That appeal was dismissed in early 2010 in a judgement that I remarked at the time was extremely strongly worded

Boris Johnson somewhat cynically kept her on the London Fire Authority (LFEPA) so that she could vote through a series of controversial cuts to the London Fire Service.  He widely criticised for this, but he does not appear to have challenged the result of the appeal process.  Indeed, according to the Guardian at the time, his spokesman said that ""Councillor Joseph still disputes the complaint made against her, but the mayor believes the first-tier tribunal made a compelling case against her continuing to serve on the authority. The mayor had allowed Ms Joseph two weeks to make her case to him, in the interests of natural justice and due process."  He then got rid of her, after the crucial budget meeting.

The complaint to the police was made subsequently, and does not relate to the original judgement or the outcome of the appeal.

Bertha Joseph is apparently selected to stand as a Conservative candidate in Brondesbury Park

Friday, 13 October 2017

A seachange over Brexit?

A new poll suggests a majority now think leaving the EU is a mistake.  One shouldn't get too excited by one poll, but the implications of a majority of the public thinking it a bad idea to leave could change political debate significantly.

I suspect it has a lot to do with the way the government is trying to suppress knowledge of the likely impact of Brexit

Most MPs still think that staying in the EU is best for Britain.  A faction of the Tory Party has successfully used the referendum result to railroad Parliament into voting the UK out by arguing that "the will of the people is sacred." If the will of the people changes, as in any democracy it can, that argument falls away.  A persistent poll lead in favour of remain, based on a better understanding of the likely consequence of having the worst of both worlds might make a pause or even a reversal of the exit process far more likely. 

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Return to Manor Park Works Site

As I pointed out before one of the Kensal Green councillors is seeking to organise protests against the Manor Park Works redevelopment on the grounds that it is too big whilst ignoring the much larger proposed development of 2 Scrubs Lane.

This is odd, as Brent has specifically said it wants the Manor Park Works site redeveloped as housing.  According to Brent Council's documents, the site would have 45 units which is somewhat above what Brent planners had as an indicative figure, but not drastically so.  An email in circulation makes what appears to be a false claim that there will be "a hundred bedrooms" which is higher than the figures in the planning documents and states that 150 people would live there (a figure which seems to have been plucked from the air).  I really don't think that public debate is helped by inserting random and/or untrue figures.  The same document objects to the lack of green space, as if it were remotely possible to develop that site with green space.

Councillors really do not to think about development in a much more coherent and consistent manor than they appear to be currently doing.

UPDATE 10.10.17

Actually a 20 storey building on 2 Scrubs Lane would be visible from pretty much everywhere in southern Brent, including anywhere near Harlesden Town Centre.  The application is to be decided tomorrow.  I also find it odd that the councillor in question is objecting to a seven storey building as too tall but has expressed no objection to a twenty storey building in the same ward.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Kensal Green in City Hall

Following Michael's comment here, I have sought out the Planning Meeting concerned.  The papers and agenda are here.  The venue for the meeting is City Hall at 6pm on Wednesday 11 October, and I have written to the Committee clark to see if there is scope for verbal objections as well.  Of course, I am no longer a councillor so I haven't really kept up with the system as it relates to Park Royal.  I must say it does surprise me that none of the Kensal Green councillors appear to have objected despite the well known opposition of at least one one of them to any housing applications.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Costs at Cricklewood

Like the Kensal Rise Library, Cricklewood Library has succeeded in fund raising for its capital costs.  The next part is securing the running costs of whatever is in there.  In this, I would have misgivings about whether trying to run something resembling a local authority library is sensible.  The infrastructure of running even a small local authority library is extremely expensive and cumbersome. 

What I think many of these groups actually want is a community space and a symbol of the local area, which could be obtained far more cheaply since it would not require things like computers, staff/volunteer training etc. that add considerable complication

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Localism, Trees and Meddling

Michael Gove, with his customary self assurance, has been looking for ways to impose his will on Sheffield Council over street trees.  The Council in Sheffield has a programme which apparently involves the removal of a number of trees on the grounds that they are "dying, diseased or dangerous."

I don't know know if the said trees actually are dangerous, but I would think Sheffield Council and whatever tree specialist they employ are better placed to know than Michael Gove.  Cases of people dying from fallen branches are not unknown as this example from Willesden illustrates.   If Mr Gove were to "save" some trees, and one of them were subsequently involved in an accident, I think it fairly likely that Mr Gove would not be accepting responsibility, but he does seem to feel it is his role to make the decision.

That shows you a lot about how the government's approach to localism is entirely cynical.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Heseltine on Tory Prospects

As one might expect, Michael Heseltine's interview with Prospect is full of insights, but I think he over estimates the Labour Party.  At present the Labour Party seem to me to be falling into a trap.  Many people in the Labour Party seem to see the 2017 election as a victory when it was a defeat, refuse to accept the scale of the task to secure a majority (more than sixty seats assuming all the existing seats are held) and don't seem to accept the need to prove to the electorate that the Party will be reasonably competent in economic matters.  The current mood in the Labour Party strikes me as worryingly close to the kind of hubris which put Theresa May where she is today, in office but not in power.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

The Queensbury Controversy Returns

The redevelopment of The Queensbury site in Willesden is already being framed as a "battle" ahead of it being clear what the new developers' plans actually are.  I opposed the Fairview proposals in both their first and their second incarnations, but to oppose the new developer without seeing the actual proposal does seem over the top.  Some people just seem to oppose everything. 

That said, 48 units sounds worryingly similar to the previous rejected application.  That went to appeal, and if the developer is sensible the new proposals will take careful account of the Planning Inspector objections from last time

The object of the planning system is not to endlessly block development, but rather to regulate it so that it is sensible, and ensures that the area continues to develop in a balanced way.  That is essential in an area as dynamic as Brent.  To go to far in either alternative direction either leaves you with a kind of museum piece or a commercial free for all.