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Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Labour Party Democracy vs Real Democracy

The Labour Party is currently thinking about a plan to make Council Leader elected by the Labour Party membership in some pilot areas, a move described by Newcastle's Nick Forbes as "probably illegal".  He may well be right on that, but it is also worth considering how undemocratic and unworkable it would be.

Under the current system appointments and decisions are made in public by publicly elected people on the basis of published documents prepared by professional staff.  They are trackable and the people making them are accountable to any member of the public.  Of course, there are cases where the practice falls short of the ideal, but there are safeguards to ensure some measure of accountability which cannot be circumvented.

The proposed system would be that half a million Labour members (perhaps 1% of the total electorate), and probably a lot less, would vote in the Council Leader.  No one outside the Labour Party membership would be allowed to know who was making that decision or why.  The Leader would be beholden to these people who would be under no obligation to know anything about the operations of local government.

In my experience even quite long standing Labour members can be quite ignorant about how local government works and what is and is not possible.  The recent example of regeneration in Haringay illustrates this rather starkly.  This probably won't impact certain decisions.  For instance any Council Leader who tried to implement an old style Militant mandate by Party members not to set a budget would just be removed from office by the Secretary of State.  Similarly populist moves like cancelling contracts without compensation would just result in losing legal actions.

The real unworkable aspect would be any effort at transformative reform such as (for example) Brent Civic Centre, changing the recycling set up or large scale regeneration projects.  These all take a long time to put together and involve complicated trade offs.  Any of them might be subject to a populist campaign to veto them which could be used to attack a Council Leader in the way that Claire Kober was attacked.  The result would be that Councils would effectively be unable to push such projects through, particularly if it meant working with partners (as typically happens in regeneration).  That means that Councils would not be able to deal with major problems such as large sub-standard housing estates.  Ironically, they would be forced into a position where they were just administering Tory cuts on behalf of central government _ precisely the opposite of what the Labour Left say they want to achieve.

You can get an idea of the frustrations that some Labour councillors feel about on this here.  

Monday, 30 July 2018

Water Problems at Willesden Green Library

The water supply problems at Willesden Library continue.  From conversation, I understand that the ground area flooded taking out the electrics on the bottom floor as well as crucially a pump to supply the building with water.  It is still not entirely clear what the source of the flooding is.

It must be very frustrating for both the tenants and the staff, who are having to cancel some events.

There is some hope of opening next week although this is still unclear.  Presumably once the building is operating again there will be various efforts to claim compensation.

Unfortunately, this is likely to lead to Brent being unable to replicate its rise in loans and visit usage for next year as Willesden is the busiest in terms of loans and the second busiest in terms of visits.  

UPDATE 31.07.18

The Library service have managed to open Willesden Library as of today (31.07.18)

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Manor Park Road Site Returns for Appeal

The Kilburn Times reports on the appeal of the developers for overturning the Council Planning Committee decision at Manor Park Road.  The quotes in the Kilburn Times story express surprise at the appeal although at the time I thought it highly likely.  The decision itself seems to have been a highly marginal one

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Volunteer Libraries Again

More detail on the difficulties of volunteer libraries can be found in a study by UCL.  The points made about the lack of diversity may be particularly relevant to Brent, and the fact that no one has managed to invent a long term funding model is ominous. 

Friday, 27 July 2018

Devon and Spun Off Libraries

Public Libraries News has published interesting information on outsourced libraries in Devon.  A comparison to Brent is not entirely fair, as Devon has people spread over a much bigger geographical area, and with a much less developed public transport network than North London.

Nonetheless a couple of comparisons strike me.

Devon has put all its libraries in a charitable trust.  This has actually created inefficiencies with new managerial posts being created to mirror what used to be done by the Council itself.  The Devon Libraries Unlimited now seems to have a management ratio of 1:2.  Brent Council by contrast from quite early on in the 2010 Labour administration restructured to reduce management layers going from a ratio of about 1:2.6 to much closer to the 1:6 ratio that was the local government standard. 

A second striking fact is that Devon is still boasting about "keeping libraries open" i.e. the physical buildings.  It doesn't mention any measures of usage, and I suspect that might because the usage figures don't look good (unlike Brent). 

Finally the savings that Devon identify sound more like rent seeking savings rather than actual ones.  Essentially charitable status allows for inventive tax avoidance. 

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Swarminarayan School To Be Rebuilt on Northwick Park?

Some days ago, Nick Gibb the schools minister raised the possibility of a new Hindu free school being built on Northwick Park.  This follows the announced closure of the current private school in Stonebridge.  It raises several issues that Brent Council should be investigating:

  • Have all the relevant sites been surveyed properly.  Building on Metropolitan Open Land (i.e. a park) is equivalent in planning terms to building on Green Belt.  If permitted at all it should only be a last resort.
  • Will the new school be fully funded?
  • Will the current closing private school make any contribution?
  • What will happen to the old school site in Stonebridge?
  • Why does this matter apparently have Ealing and Harrow representatives but no opinions from Brent MPs or Brent Council?

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Vent Shaft in South Kilburn

The Brent Times is covering this vent shaft story from South Kilburn, quite rightly.  The site of the shaft was originally close to Queens Park station where Brent Council objected strongly.  The alternative site was then selected.  Given the controversy over HS2 in Camden, I am surprised this does not have a higher profile. 

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Grotesque Delays with Universal Credit

Failures in universal credit are fixed into the system thanks to inadequate IT, according to the Guardian.  Although presented as a revelation, the problems were seen coming some years ago.  Minsters themselves admitted it was not going to work, but their response was simply to seek to blame others rather than effectively prevent the malfunction. 

It all rather reminds me of Brexit.

We all know it is not going to work.  We fail to swerve to avoid the disaster clearly visible down the road and the poorest people are the ones who are hit hardest. 

The one small comfort that I take from this is that Brent Council appears to be one of what is now only a minority of Councils operating a Local Welfare system.  This can be of huge importance in individual cases.  The government has been effectively trying to destroy this kind of local welfare support

I played some part in designing the Brent scheme at the same time as designing Brent's Council Tax Support arrangements, and I hope it can continue. 

Monday, 23 July 2018

Changes to Planting in Brent Parks

There has been some controversy over Brent's less invasive approach to parks management recently, the reduction in certain kinds of maintenance was prefigured some time ago.  The major change was to switch from the kind of water thirsty and high maintenance park you can see here:

Instead a style was chosen with fewer bedding plants and more slower growing herbaceous plants.  The intention was both to conserve water given the effects of climate change and minimise financial costs.  The planting was done with the advice of an expert from the Royal Horticultural Society, and can be seen at sites such as the entrance to Roundwood Park. 

The very long grass in the Kilburn Times report looks much less considered and more "let's just not cut the grass". 

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Routemaster Buses

Somewhat late in the day here is Dave Hill on Boris Johnson's Routemaster buses.  His tone is quite moderate, but they still strike me as an ill considered vanity project.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

More Brexit Slipperiness

Jacob Rees Mogg is now describing his preferred WTO terms Brexit as "all [the EU] are prepared to offer us."  That is yet another example of the dishonesty of his campaign, to try to make it appear that the EU is withholding from any arrangement rather than he and his colleagues pushing for a "hard Brexit".

The reality is that, having offered a completely contradictory set of promises, he and his colleagues are now trying to pass the blame for the damage they are about to cause on anyone other than themselves.

If we do just "crash out" not only will it be an economic disaster, but it might even (unless we get for instance an aviation deal) lead to a crisis in cross border traffic endangering things like food supplies. 

Hardly "taking control".

The Spread of Antisemitism

The recent news that Luciana Berger MP had been subject to death threats emphasises how important it is for the Labour Party to start treating antisemitism as seriously as it treats other forms of persecution.  Adopting the full IHRA definition is a very small step towards this, and is something that any reasonable organisation would do immediately.

Community Ownership from Rachel Reeves MP

Rachel Reeves MP has an interesting comment on a community ownership project in her own constituency here.  This is interesting from a Brent perspective in thinking of possible solutions to rebuilding the Sports Centre in Stonebridge.  That has attracted local demand for community involvement, and the Leeds development sounds as if it might provide a parallel. 

I have always been told that the terms on which it was built back in the 1980s force a degree of community involvement at this site.  Basically, if it went straightforwardly private Brent Council would have to pay a penalty lump sum in a similar way to the Roundwood Youth Club.

Any effort towards a wider community involvement needs to start as soon as possible before the Council is far in the redevelopment. 

Friday, 20 July 2018

Fire the Kiln

Despite a recent article in the CamdenNewJournal, the "Fire the Kiln" campaign appears to have died a natural death of which I am rather glad.  It simply isn't nice to publish leaflets calling for people to lose their jobs and at a time when the new theatre has just pulled off the remarkable feat of not only rebuilding the whole theatre and staying in business as a going concern but then to announcing what looks to be an interesting new season it is absurd. 

Tickets are now on sale for the theatre when it re-opens in September

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Willesden Library Water Supply and Flooding

I have been told a little more about the Willesden Library water supplies.  Apparently they have failed repeatedly because a blocked drain in the area is causing surface flooding.  The water apparently has got to the pumps that supply the Library with water and hence the breakdown. 

During the planning process back in 2013, I specifically mentioned the flooding problem to officers and got a specific planning condition to take particular measures to seek to prevent surface flooding.  The new housing at the back of the site does indeed have some obvious SUDs type features designed to reduce flooding risk, but I take it the last couple of times they have been inadequate to meet the need.  The problem lies partly in the lie of the land sloping towards the High Road.  The area should also have been made better by the soft landscaping at the junction

I have also heard that there may also have been some drain blockages making the problems harder to deal with.  These kind of issues are likely to become more frequent as climate change makes torrential downpours more common.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Housing Realities and the Greens

I was interested to read a London Green perspective on the proposed abolition of Haringey's regeneration programme.  I don't know the details of the Haringey deal (which for all I know may not be a good one), but the Green article seems to indicate how they just don't even begin to comprehend the nature of the issues involved.

Firstly, they seem to think that you just declare what you want and some one gives it to you.  In real life you negotiate a deal.  That is, you offer something and the other party offers something in return.  In the case of regeneration projects that generally means a Council selling land, a property developer putting in capital to develop the land, and some mixture of social uses (affordable housing, social infrastructure) and property for sale to pay for it.  The biggest change to this picture in recent years is that the Tories have cut capital grants to make this all happen and to help deliver more of the social housing that Tory ministers claim they suddenly in favour of.

The Haringey case seems to have run up against another problem, the rule of law.  Once you enter into a contract you are bound by it.  This is fundamental to how our society works.  The developer (Lendlease) seem to be believe that they have gone past that point. If they are right, the Council's options are (a) break the contract and probably be sued, costing a huge amount of money (b) Negotiate itself out of the contract which would entail some compensation and reputational damage (c) Decide it is better to press ahead with the deal its got and hold the developer to account to deliver it as closely as possible.

The fact that the Greens just appear not to understand the basics of how things work suggests that they really aren't fit to provide any kind of constructive opposition to them.

The result of the Green approach may well be a drying up of new house building of any kind which is the last thing either the economy or society needs. 

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Housing Priority

Red Brick Blog has expressed scepticism about the Tory record on housing with housing ministers lasting about one per year.  Theresa May and Sajid Javid have both assured people in public statements that in fact it is a huge priority for the Tories, although I am inclined to doubt this.

More worrying is the latest Tory minister, whose record in housing in local government was lamentable.  Kit Malthouse saw social tenants as essentially a burden when he was leader in Hammersmith, changing policies to force them to "volunteer" if they wanted to stay in their homes.  I doubt whether any Tory minister would force private home owners to volunteer.  Huffington Post suggests that his response to rough sleepers was to try to force them off the streets as part of a "hostile environment" type strategy.  He has also supported a reduction in genuinely affordable homes which has put our housing market where it is today.

Monday, 16 July 2018

Michael Fabricant and Sadiq Khan

Michael Fabricant is quite rightly in hot water over an image he retweeted about Sadiq Khan that was blatantly anti-Muslim.  His initial defence was to announce that he was a "socially liberal conservative" which he appeared to think made it all fine.

As well as being called out on his anti-Muslim bigotry, this illustrate the potential problem around  the Labour Party's alteration of the IHRA definition of antisemitism.  Suppose a similar picture were circulated about a Jewish politician; it would undoubtedly be seen as antisemitic.

However, if action were brought under Jennie Formby's preferred definition of antisemitism, one would need to prove antisemitic "intent".  That is practically impossible since how can you tell what some one is thinking at a particular time.  The result would be a cat and mouse game in which the offender could easily brush off any process by declaring their innocence.  It would indeed be what Luciana Berger calls a "get out of jail free card". 

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Where to start?

I really don't know where to start on The Times story today.  It suggests that Labour officials used micro-targeted ads to mislead Jeremy Corbyn and his closest aides for only £5,000.  That suggests a very narrow circle of reference.

There are still a number of issues to do with the General Election that I have not seen a good explanation for, not least the huge increase in turnout.  I suspect whenever the next General Election occurs it will be a nasty shock for some one.

Isabel Hardman on Jeremy Hunt

Isabel Hardman has an interesting piece on Jeremy Hunt, the new Foreign Secretary.  It strikes me as rather generous.  It misses out the contradiction between the what he told the public to do and his own behaviour, and his remarkable confession that he didn't know what quasi-judicial meant (and didn't try to find out) when judging Rupert Murdoch's business dealings.  Not to mention his routinely evasive answers in Parliament. 

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Willesden Library Closed Yet Again

It seems that Willesden Library is closed yet again today following yesterday's storms.  Brent Libraries really are going to have to solve this problem whatever it is. 

Friday, 13 July 2018

Still Making Allowances at Brent Council

I remarked the other day that a supplementary had been added to Brent's last full Council meeting expanding the Executive to ten posts from the previous eight.  This seems to have been nodded through. 

Allowances has been a contentious issue in the past.  Essentially, since 2014, Brent has followed a policy of increasing the basic allowance considerably whilst seeking to justify this by cutting the number of Special Responsibility posts.  This has decoupled the levels of allowance received from the amount of work actually done, and has not always been pursued consistently.  Thus, new posts on Scrutiny were created and allowances given to them, which I thought rather peculiar.

The second argument made, certainly in 2014, was that the overall allowance bill would be unchanged as the number of SRAs cut would pay for the increase in the basic level.  In terms of the Executive in 2014, it was argued that cutting the size of the Executive justified a rise in the levels of SRAs for the surviving eight members.  Some people repeated the argument to me in 2018, when Brent Council has raised the basic allowance again to among the highest basic allowance in London.  Now, we seem to be in a position where the basic allowance has risen at a much faster rate than the general pay rate of people working in local government, and the numbers of SRAs are also increasing. 

Presumably the justification for this is that councillors are thought to be doing more work even as the budget and the functions of the Council are diminished.  I can't say that I find this line of argument all that convincing.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Brexit Ineptitude

The sheer ineptitude of the Brexit negotiation is remarkable.  Despite having the precedent of David Davis' impact assessments behind them, the government has contrived to release its White Paper in such a way as to maximise the controversy about them. 

Incidentally I am amused to see that Jacob Rees Mogg has floated the idea of an humble address to get the Davis draft of the White Paper released.  This was the tactic used over the impact assessments.  Back then Rees Mogg appeared to back the release before backing off.  Now he wants to repeat with the saga with the White Paper, but it may well be that the draft White Paper in its David version may well be released anyway.  In which case, I shall be interested in seeing whether David ever had a real plan.

Brexit Posturing

With Johnson and Davis now gone from the Cabinet, I imagine that Theresa May will now face a gruelling period during which they seek to pretend that any further changes to the Brexit position are down to her weakness  rather than inherent weakness and incoherence of the whole project.  I am struck by the way both of them employ military metaphors and simply ignore the actual problems of customs, hard borders and so on. 

In my perhaps cynical view they are simply trying to avoid blame for securing us a worse deal outside the European Union than if we stayed in it.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Lawbreaking by the Leave Campaign

Carole Cadwallador has been doggedly pursuing the allegations of law breaking by the Leave campaign.  If proven these are some of the most widespread and consequential law breaches even made under UK election law.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Tracking Brent Council Performance

The July Brent Council Cabinet meeting next week seems to have quite a thin agenda once again.  More worryingly, the performance on waste collection looks to have slipped back significantly from a few years ago, which is a real expense as well as a concern in environmental terms.  There are hints in the reports of problems in other areas, including cultural services as the Council continues to struggle to contain the impact of central government cuts.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Is Brexit Unwinding?

David Davis' resignation is could be hugely significant for Brexit, possibly leading to a halt in the whole process.  I feel a little sorry for Suella Braverman.  She is a bit stuck in the middle and probably can't do anything right.

The key decision though has to be by Boris Johnson who finally has to decide to stay in which case his leadership hopes are probably dead, or go, in which case he will probably either support some one else's unsuccessful challenge to May or make his own.

Another Council Document Slips In

Once again Brent Council is using supplementary reports to push through significant documents.  At tonight's Council meeting, a document relating to the future size of the Council will be slipped through, probably with very little debate. 

This includes an increase in the size of the Cabinet, the abolition of some semi-defunct committees such as the Standards Committee and the Highways Committee.  It further contains detail on the size of wards, numbers of councillors overall and is preparatory to a review of ward boundaries that might easily see major changes.

Main Agenda
In the main body of the Agenda are changes to the Council Constitution, including an explanation that more decisions will be made by individual members of the Cabinet acting alone.  In these cases:

"However, there is no requirement to publish a report 5 days in advance of the decision being made as would be the case in respect of a decision due to be made at a meeting. Nor do the advance publication requirements apply if the decision to be taken is not a key decision." (3.9)

In terms of the time allowed for both members of the public and backbench councillors speaking time is being reduced.

Thus Brent Council moves further away from the level of transparency it has already got.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Summer Reading Challenge in Brent

I am glad to see that the Summer Reading Challenge is still being actively promoted in Brent Libraries.  I know that some Councils have cut funding for this, but that seems to me a terribly retrograde step, presumably just borne of financial desperation.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

The Penny Finally Drops on Brexit

I wonder whether it is finally getting through to the Brexit enthusiasts, as apparently it finally is to Jacob Rees Mogg, that leaving the European Union does indeed offer us less control than being a member on the highly favourable terms that we have succeeded in negotiating over the past forty years. 

The deal that Theresa May is suggesting is indeed much worse than membership because we lose our place at the decision making table and become a "rule taker".  We would equally be a "rule taker" if we crashed out with no agreement as he has advocated.  The best option would obviously be to stay on as a member and seek to shape the European Union from within.

It was said that the Good Friday Agreement was Sunningdale for slow learners; perhaps the Brexit process could be EU Membership for slow learners. 

The signs, however, are that this is instead developing into a "stab in the back theory" that Brexit would have been marvellous if only there had not been a betrayal by Theresa May.  That view depends on ignoring the consensus view that all forms of Brexit hurt us economically by cutting us off from our main export markets. 

Traffic Light Times

An interesting if rather long piece on the planning of traffic signals in the Guardian.  In theory, Brent Council is now committed to the Road User Hierarchy putting pedestrians at the top and private cars last, but I am not always sure that it works that way in practice.  Certainly there are parts of Kensal Green, such as the traffic light by Furness Park or at the bottom of Tubbs Road, which seem to put cars first. 

Friday, 6 July 2018

May's Mistake on NHS Spending

It is fascinating to watch how Theresa May's commitment to spend more on the NHS has gone wrong already.  Firstly, she has failed to outbid Labour which is pledging more.  Secondly she has thrown away the advantage that the Tories have always had over Labour that Labour was always under greater pressure to show to pay for things because the voters did not trust Labour.  Thirdly, unlike Blair and Brown in 2002, she has decoupled the extra spend from the taxation needed to pay for it. 

That is shown in Gaby Hinsliff's Guardian column, which grudgingly refers to the extra spend, as if it were a mere by product and Philip Hammond was simply itching to raise taxes. 

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

More on Volunteer Libraries

The subject of volunteer libraries rumbles on in the media. The Guardian piece linked to repeats some of the usual myths.  There never was a "national" library service, it has always been a municipal duty accounting for by each library authority in different ways.  It also appears to believe that volunteer libraries are doing something different in terms of events.  If you look at a traditional library service such as Brent; events of all kinds have been a feature of what libraries do for many years. 

What really threatens the whole volunteer model is whether they can secure funding, and I suspect they cannot.  Local Councils are seeing rising costs pressures and declining incomes and simply can't carry on funding.  This is why Councils like Brent had to finally bite the bullet on their library services in the first place.  If volunteer libraries don't secure extra funding but just suck money from the public purse, they will end up hollowing out the public library services in ways that are familiar outside Brent. 

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Brexit Weakening the UK

Yesterday's report that the US Defense Secretary is instructing us about our defence budget is a striking illustration of how Brexit is weakening the UK not only in terms of relations with the EU but also elsewhere.  Should we really have foreign politicians telling us our to draw up our own budget.

It is also a striking instance of how weak and divided the Cabinet has become.  It is widely assumed to be leaked by Williamson, probably with US connivance, and Theresa May seems unable to do anything about it.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Closure of Swarminarayan School

The proposed closure of the Swarminarayan school in Stonebridge is a reminder of how difficult this process can be for all concerned.  Among those may be Brent Council which may find itself having to deal with an influx of pupils as other authorities have done.  This is a side to the whole free schools movement that seldom gets mentioned.  Free schools often get art way through a set up, or close after opening, and the pupils are left to fend for themselves, and indeed increasingly under resourced Councils are left wondering how to pick up the pieces.

UPDATE 04.07.18

The Brent Times seems to have updated its story.  

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Fund Raising by Volunteer Libraries

Public Libraries News has a short piece explaining that the fund raising by York's library mutual has been somewhat disappointing.  The number of donors is small, with some from the Mutual's own staff.

This seems to confirm the pattern in Brent where the amount of money privately raised appears to be be very small.  Most of the funding for the extant volunteer library groups, despite what they say, seems to come in the form of Council grants.

This does suggest that the vision of David Cameron that there was something called the "Big Society" that would make up for the massive cuts created by his government is simply wrong.  Even some people in local government fell for this idea by imagining that these voluntary groups might be able to access grants in ways that Councils could not.  Indeed, it seems that the Green Party fell for this line as well.

It really brings into question the whole long term sustainability of the "volunteer library" movement if effectively they are funded through one off Council grants.  One off grants are a lousy way to pay for things if you are incurring ongoing costs, like paying a member of staff.  Firstly, the member of staff does all their work under threat of a budgetary axe.  Secondly, if they are a genuine temporary member of staff, their expertise is lost at the end of the discrete project (which is something I have seen a number of times).  It would surely be far more sensible to simply give these grants to staff on the payroll as capital investment for the Libraries service