Friday, 20 July 2018

Wembley Matters off-line

I am going into hospital for an for an operation  so Wembley Matters will be off-line for a while. I have certainly had cause to appreciate the NHS as a service over the last 18 months or so! Long may it continue.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Summer holiday nature activities at the Welsh Harp, Kingsbury

Gibb offers Labour MPs & Bob Blackman help in setting up a Hindu Free School to replace Swaminarayan

In a debate yesterday Nick Gibb (Minister of State for School Standards) offered two Labour MPs, Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) and Stephen Pound (Ealing North) help with setting up a Hindu free school to replace the private, fee-paying Hindu Swaminarayan which is to close by 2020.  He advised them to seek help from the New Schools Network and once the proposal was in play promised he would allocate an officer from the DfE to help the proposal reach fruition. He offered to meet the two MPs and Bob Blackman, Conservative MP for Harrow East, to discuss particular proposals. Full Hansard report HERE.

During the debate Sharma praised Blackman for securing the site for the school when he was leader of Brent Council and claimed that Dawn Butler (Labour, Brent Central) was a 'fervent' supporter of the school and that Gareth Thomas (Labour, Harrow West)  had been working with the community to try and find a solution.

The intervention by the Labour MPs is particularly interesting because of the current debate within the Labour Party about its attitude to free schools and academies and whether policy should be to reintegrate them into the local authority, as well as its policy on religious schools. The alternative view is a reiteration of the Blairite line 'standards not structures.'

Blackman took a swipe at Sladebrook High School, a local authority school that had previously occupied the site, describing it as 'notorious' and before closure having more teachers than children. Despite assurances from the Swaminarayan Hindu Mission that they did not want to profit from the site he asked the Minister what protections could be offered for the site which has been 'a school site forever' having been built at the same time as the Stonebridge Estate. Blackman made a vague reference to a possible site for a Hindu free school in Northwick Park.

Gibb replied:
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) is, of course, right that the Government’s academies and free schools programme has enabled a number of Hindu faith schools to be established in the state sector for the first time, as free schools set up by organisations such as the Avanti Schools Trust. He pointed to a new school opening this September under the free schools programme. There is also the Avanti House Primary School in Harrow and the Avanti House Secondary School, which were opened under the free school programme—the secondary was rated good by Ofsted in May 2018. There is the Krishna Avanti Primary School in Croydon and the Krishna Avanti Primary School in Leicester, again set up under the free school programme.

There are more than 2,300 independent schools in England, and between them they provide an enormous variety of educational experiences for our young people. Around 7% of children are educated in the independent sector, which is a significant contribution to our education system. Some schools in the independent sector will close and some will open. The independent sector also has a number of faith schools, which bring their own distinctive flavour. Schools with a religious character also play a strong and positive role in the state-funded sector, making up a third of all schools. They are some of our highest performing schools and are often popular with parents, giving them greater choice and the opportunity to pass on their ethos to their children.

Although the independent school sector as a whole is flourishing, with broadly constant numbers of schools and pupils over the past few years, it is inevitable that there will be changes. Every year, a number of independent schools close—usually about 70 or 80. Other schools open their doors in broadly the same numbers, but the profile of the sector tends to change over time in response to a number of factors, including market pressures. We should not forget that independent schools, whether run by charities or as businesses, operate in the marketplace. The decision to close an independent school is a matter for the owner or proprietor alone, except for the small number of cases when the Government seek to close a school because of a serious and extended failure to meet the independent school standards; that has not been the case for the Swaminarayan School.

Unlike state-funded schools, independent schools do not have to go through an approval process before they close. Although the owner or proprietor is asked as a matter of courtesy to inform the Department for Education that the school can be removed from the register of independent schools, there is no obligation to give the Department any details of the reason for closure. The Department passes what it knows to the relevant local authority, in case the closure results in demand for state-funded school places.

It is, of course, always a priority, whenever an independent or state school closes, to ensure that alternative schools are found for the pupils. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East is absolutely right to raise that important issue. It can be a very difficult time for families, and sometimes there are added time pressures. Families were told about the closure of the Swaminarayan School well in advance. That is not often the case, and it will assist parents who are currently sending their children to the school.
I turn to the closure. Although the school is not in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall, it is likely that many children from families in his constituency attend it. Naturally, those families will have found the announcement of the closure disappointing. It is a reasonably sized school: in January 2018, it had 420 pupils, although only 377 are expected to be there this September, and it caters for an age range of between two and 18 years. When it was inspected in 2014, the Independent Schools Inspectorate found that the provision was excellent. The October 2014 report says the school:
“enables pupils to obtain excellent standards in their work and to develop outstanding qualities as young people”.
It also says:

“Both at GCSE and in the sixth form, pupils benefit from first class curricular arrangements, and from a wide-ranging programme of activities”.

That reflects what the hon. Gentleman said. As I said, there is no requirement to give the Department specific reasons for closure, but our understanding from statements supplied by the trustees is that the reasons are primarily financial, and that falling pupil numbers are the driver. The closure of all parts of the school is now planned to take place in 2020, to give parents the maximum amount of time to find alternative schools.

The school has a designation as a school of religious character and a declared religious ethos of Hinduism, although not all the pupils who attend are of that religion. It is right to acknowledge that the closure of a school with a specifically Hindu ethos is a matter of regret, simply because at present there are relatively few other schools of that nature in England. There are two primary academies, four free schools and an independent school. Most Hindu children attend schools in the state or independent sectors.

As I have suggested, there is nothing the Government can do to stop the closure now that the trustees have taken the decision. We do not fund independent schools, and nor do we come to arrangements that are designed to help them overcome financial difficulties. That is what being independent is about; it is not just about giving schools greater freedom to operate in the way they want.

I am sure the school will work closely with the local authority and parents to ensure that alternative schools can be found for the children who are still at the school in 2020. I will write to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East about the site. If it had been a state school, there are particular provisions to ensure that the first option is for it to open as a free school. As it is an independent school, I will write to my hon. Friend in technical terms about whether there are provisions in statute that can enable the site to continue to be used for educational purposes, or whether it is free for the owners to dispose of as they wish. I will write to him to confirm that position.

I have listened very carefully to what the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall said. The priority over the next two years must be to ensure that the pupils who would have been at the school in 2020, had it remained open, are found alternative places.

We give a lot of help to groups that wish to set up free schools. The New Schools Network is the starting point of that help; once a proposal is in play, we will allocate an official in the Department to help it come forth. A number of Hindu free schools have already been established through that process, and I am happy to work with my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East and the hon. Members for Ealing, Southall and for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), if they want to meet to discuss particular proposals for a Hindu free school to replace the Swaminarayan School.

Hampstead and Kilburn CLP back Abdirazak over sacking from Planning Committee

The proposed Ark Primary School to be built on the York Hopuse car park

Last night Hampstead and Kilburn Constituency Labour Party overwhelmingly backed a motion submitted by Kilburn (Brent) branch on the sacking of Cllr Abdirazak Abdi from Brent Planning Committee.

The resolution sets out the background and concurs with an opinion voiced on this blog that the Report submitted to the Full Council Meeting stating that Cllr Abdi had resigned was untrue. The amounts to misleading councillors and the public.

This branch/CLP/LCF notes:

Abdirazak Abdi, a recently elected first-time Kilburn Brent Councillor, has voted on eleven planning applications since being on the planning committee of Brent Council since May. He voted against four of the eleven applications because of material planning considerations. As a conscientious Councillor he is doing his best to promote truly sustainable development in Brent. The four developments he voted against include:

* An application to build a 630 pupil primary school on the busy Wembley Hill Road connecting Wembley Central and Wembley Park with a rooftop playground and concerns around air pollution;

* An application for a part 21 and a part 15 storey housing block in Wembley, criticised  by local residents, and also queried by Sadiq Khan's office for containing too little `affordable' housing especially as the scheme received public funding;

On the afternoon of Monday 9th July Cllr Abdi was informed by the leader of Brent Council that he was being removed from the Planning Committee. This was transparently because he was not endorsing decisions approved by the leader.

His removal from planning committee went ahead at full Council that evening despite objections from Abdi (including at the full Council meeting) and his Labour Party branch secretary.

The Council record states that Abdi "resigned" from the planning committee, which is blatantly untrue.

We call for:

Brent Labour Group to reinstate Cllr Abdi to the planning committee as a matter of urgency;

Brent Labour Group to instigate democratic procedures for decisions on committee places and to put an end to the current patronage, which could be interpreted as political interference in planning decisions.

[Resolution to be sent to Brent Central and Brent North CLPs, Brent LCF and all members of Brent Council Labour Group]

[LCF is Local Campaign Forum, a Party body with delegates from all 3 CLPs in the borough (and from the Labour Group]
For additional information, Abdi was told he was being taken off planning to make way for one of the Councillors elected in the late Willesden Green election. Abdi was only on one committee (planning), this is the breakdown for others: 
Excluding leader, deputy leader and members on the cabinet.

5 councillors not appointed to serve on any committtee

16 councillors only serve on 1 committee
14 councillors serve on 2 committees;
11 councillors serve on 3 committees; and
5 serve on  4 or more committees;

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Mandela's 100th birthday - time for Wembley to remember his 70th birthday concert

As the world celebrates Nelson Mandela's 100th birthday and contrasts his qualities with those of our present leaders, perhaps it is time for us to recognise the importance of the 1988 concert held at Wembley Stadium to mark his 70th birthday.

The concert watched by over 600 million people world-wide  did an enormous amount to communicate the struggle against apartheid. Quintain have mounted an exhibition of key events in the history of Wembley Stadium and Wembley Park along Olympic Way and elsewhere in their development, but the concert is not included.

The video above gives just a glimpse of the energy and enthusiasm of the occasion. It is time to correct this oversight which is part of our local history remembered by many.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Willesden Green Library closed until July 23rd at the earliest - time to ask questions?

Willesden Green Library

From Brent Council
The problem with the water at the Library at Willesden Green is going to take some time to fix. We will not be able to reopen until Monday 23 July at the earliest. We will keep you updated and let you know when we have a definite reopening day.
I hope ward councillors will follow this up. Brent Council made great play that the new 'Cultural Centre' (title seems to have been dropped) had been provided at no cost to council tax payers in exchange for council land handed over to developers to build luxury flats. These were later sold in Singapore with the unique selling point that there was no affordable housing or key worker housing on site.

This is the second closure due to a water problem and the length of closure indicates a degree of seriousness or complexity that one would think unlkely in a fair straightforward new build.

Were corners cut in the building of the library to save the developer money?

Monday, 16 July 2018

Cuts of £30m in Brent budget likely 2019-21

The Finance Report going before Cabinet this afternoon LINK looks towards the 2020 cliff edge when local government no longer gets a direct central government grant.

 The report looks at the cost pressures above and quotes the Audit Commission: 
“The current trajectory for local government is towards a narrow core offer increasingly centred on social care. This is the default outcome of sustained increases in demand for social care and of tightening resources”
The report notes that currently one third of the Council budget goes towards social care but that the government is publishing a green paper on social care funding and integration with the NHS in the autumn. The implications of this for the council budget are unclear and thus not included in the report.

Brent Council has made £164,000,000 'savings' since 2010 and the forecast is that another £30m will need to be cut from the budget between 2019-20 and 2020-21, £29m from general services and £1.3m from the Housing Revenue Account (HRA).

The report notes that because of uncertainties over government policy this figure only has +/-20% accuracy. More accurate figures will not be known for a year.

The officers' assume a council tax rise of 4% annually, 2% general cash funding and 2% for adult social care but note that last year a rise of 5% was allowed. CIPFA suggest that the 2018-19 council tax rise may be the biggest for 14 years.

In addition the council may also make further increases in the cost of non-statutory services provided to the public and continue to seek other  revenue raising opportunities such as selling advertising space on its buildings.

However the main source of funding in the future will be council tax and business rates.  Brent is estimated to receive £7m from the pilot 100% Business Rate Retention Pool in 2018-19 but the rate will be 75% through the Fair Funding Review and 25% in specific grants in 2020-21.

One option that Brent Council has been following is to seek to increase its council tax and business rate base - more people paying into the pot and this is particularly evident through the new housing approved in specific areas of the borough. If the new occupants are young and without children this results in increased income without much additional strain on services.

The council estimates the council tax base to increase by 2.5% a year which will be reviewed and refined as part of the financial planning process. They claim that it is harder to forecast the business rate base because of the impact of appeals (which can take a considerable time to be resolved by the VOA) and because it is more directly impacted by broader changes in the economy. They are currently working to a figure of 2% in 2019-20 but have not anything beyond that due to the forecasting difficulties.

In terms of the private student accommodation springing up around the borough, that yields little, because property is exempt if everyone living there fulls into one of several categories including full-time college or university students and 18 or 19 year-olds in full time education.

Lorber challenges council on potential grassland fires in Brent as Fire Brigade issues urgent warning

Former councillor Paul Lorber has called on Brent Council to make a risk assessment of potential grassland fires in Brent as a result of the Council's 'no mowing' policy in areas of the borough's parks.

His call follows fires near Heathrow Airport and on Wanstead flats LINK and a warning from the London Fire Brigade:

 Lorber said:
I really hope that the Council is ready to prevent this kind of situation arising in Brent. If not the grass cutting and removal of tall grass from Parks and Open Spaces Policy needs to be urgently reviewed and changed.

Councillors and the public needs to be advised on the risks being created and how the Council will respond and take action to protect local people.
The London Fire Brigade's statement issued this morning said:
The London Fire Brigade has today issued an urgent safety warning following the largest grass fire in its history and a series of other grass fires across the capital. Firefighters are concerned that there will be further incidents if the public doesn’t take greater care during the heatwave.

London Fire Commissioner, Dany Cotton, said:
This weekend we dealt with the largest grass fire in our history, as well as a range of other serious fires on grassland. The ground is extremely dry at the moment and grassland and parks will act like a tinderbox when exposed to even the smallest of sparks.

I never thought I’d say this but we are praying for rain.

We are calling on the public to take steps to prevent grass fires: don’t drop cigarettes or matches on dry ground or out of car windows; don’t have barbecues on dry grass or parks and don’t leave glass bottles out as they can concentrate the sun’s rays and start a blaze.

Grass fires spread like lightening so if you see dry grass smouldering, please call 999 and report it immediately so that firefighters can deal with it and stop it from spreading.
The Wanstead blaze, which was so extensive it can be defined as a wildfire, broke out on grassland at 16:05 on Sunday (15 July) at Wanstead Flats, close to Epping Forest in east London. At the height of the fire, over 100 hectares of grass was alight, which is roughly the same size as 100 football pitches.

Over 220 firefighters from fire stations across London attended, with over 40 fire engines at the scene at the height of the incident. Fifteen fire engines and around 100 firefighters remain at the scene today (Monday 16 July) to saturate the area and ensure the fire is under control. Fires on peatland can present a challenge as the fire can travel below ground. Crews are expected to be on scene for a number of hours.

Grass fires this weekend
  • Fifteen fire engines and 100 firefighters attended a large grass fire in Feltham on Saturday afternoon
  • Fifteen fire engines attended a grass fire in Ockendon in Essex on Sunday, London Fire Brigade sent three engines to assist Essex crews
  • Four fire engines attended a grass fire in Woodford Green on Sunday afternoon
  • Five engines attended a grass fire in Richmond last night