Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Libraries, Civic Centre, Wembley Youth Club, Waste, Allotments, Rats - all discussed but anything gained?

The Wembley Area Consultation Forum was considerably enlivened last night when 20 or so members of the Wembley Youth Club turned up.  They had heard rumours that their club may be closed as a result of cuts and wanted the council to know how important it was to them, and what a positive contribution it made to the lives of youth in the area. They told the audience about the sports available at the club and how taking part enabled them to focus and achieve, with those attitudes transferring into other aspects of their lives.

Cllr Ann John, leader of Brent Council, said that indeed there was a review of the youth service under way and she could give no promises. During the interval Youth Centre supporters crowded round councillors making their case, exchanging contact details and arranging further meetings.  Another battle is on its way!

Their presence was a refreshing change from the usual fairly stodgy (but often valuable) meetings with a cast of regular speakers, mainly of my generation or older. It was good to see a 13 year old stand up and speak his mind directly to councillors and the public.

A member of the Brent Youth Parliament later spoke about the increased  importance of libraries as a place for young people to congregate, borrow books and study,  now that the Education Maintenance Allowance is due to be abolished.

Cllr Ann John made a presentation on the difficulties that the Council had in implementing the 28% expenditure reduction required by the Government. This amounted to £100m over four years, front-loaded so that £37m of that must be cut in the first year. This was on top of the £85m capital grant lost from the scrapping of the Building Schools for the Future programme. Since the election other grants amounting to £6 had been lost.  She said that 350 council posts, mainly in management, had already been cut through voluntary redundancies, non-filling of vacant posts and retirement. A further 350 posts would now have to go and the process of compulsory redundancy had begun. Further savings would be made by making procurement more efficient but all these measures only amounted to £21m. This left £16m still to be found and the council was looking at reducing some services and stopping others: "There is nothing we are not looking at."

With income streams from Central Government reduced and the Council Tax frozen the Council  had to look at cuts in services and increased fees and charges for services in order to balance the budget.

In the question and answer session my suggestion that the Labour Council was finding itself in the unpleasant role of bailiffs, for the Coalition rogue landlords, wasn't well received by the platform. I noted the coincidence of £100m cuts needed and the £100m cost of the new Civic Centre. I recognised building had already started on the Centre but suggested that it had been designed in better times and should now be scaled back. My suggestion that it resembled Brent's own version of Stalin's Palace of Culture also was even less well received.

In response Ann John said that the Civic Centre had been agreed by all parties on the Council, that it would make savings in the long term and that the People of Wembley deserved something back for the inconvenience of  the regeneration of the Wembley Stadium area (if they has asked us we might have asked for something else!) She said that the cost would be recovered over a 25 year period by disposal of other buildings, reduced outgoings and increased efficiency. She claimed that projected revenue savings had increased to an estimate of £4m annually. She emphasised the green credentials of the building.

On the 127% increased allotment fees and the introduced of a £95 fee for rat infestation treatment she said that allotment fees had been very low and were still affordable. She claimed that the previously free rat infestation service had been misused with residents calling that service for other infestations (which they would have paid for) because the rat service was free. The new charges had been introduced as a result of comparison with other 'benchmark' boroughs and private providers. There was support from the audience for my claim that this would worsen the borough's rat problems particularly for multi-occupied houses and flats above shops. One resident called for reduce charges for pensioners who may otherwise be reluctant to call pest control.

Other residents suggested that the new waste strategy was an area where savings could be made - particularly on the cost of new bins. There was also claims that the salaries paid to the top executives of the Council were excessive in the present climate. Cllr John denied that they were out of line with other public sector salaries.

In response to a question from the floor Ann John pledged to continue to fund the Freedom Pass.

Cllr Powney's session on the Libraries Transformation Project was a slow simmer, boiling up at the end in comparison with the roasting he had at the Town Hall. Members of the audience stood up with a Save Our Library banner and there was close questioning of the figures behind the closure plans as well as declarations of the importance of libraries as centres for the community to mingle, as well as for reading, learning and other activities including classes, courses and homework clubs.Speakers emphasised the importance of having a library within walking distance for children, young mothers and the elderly. Cllr Powney got into a spat challenging one young mother who spoke about the difficulties of transporting several children on a bus, including a very young one. He said that loads of people used buses everyday to go to shopping centres as well as libraries and that wasn't a problem - he did it with children himself. Cllr John intervened to say that people who had a library near them should count themselves lucky and very few people had that luck. She said books were much cheaper now than previously and available at more outlets including supermarkets like ASDA.

More hackles rose when James Powney said that there was evidence that many people preferred to go to a bigger library with a 'better offer' and ignored their small local libraries. He rejected suggestions that the proposed Civic Centre mega-library could be scaled down to make money available for local libraries.  He also dismissed suggestions that all libraries could have reduced hours. He said this would mean more librarian redundancies and wouldn't release capital to invest in the service, and having a library open only two days a week wouldn't really amount to keeping it open in most people's eyes.

Asked about what would happen with closed buildings he said that two would revert to their Oxford Colleges; Barham would revert to the Barham Trust, Neasden could be leased to new users, which left Tokyngton and Preston to be sold. He said that without the revenue from the sales money would not be available to invest in an 'improved offer', including e-books. That got a response from a publisher in the audience who said that book sales were on the increase and that traditional books were not on their way out. Other residents questioned whether the service should get into the e-book business at all.

Cllr John, sounding rather more like David Cameron, expressed interest in groups and organisations of volunteers, particularly in trust and covenanted buildings, running the libraries themselves. She said she wanted to hear from them and meet to discuss options.

Sometimes the bailiff's find themselves in such a difficult position that they begin to sound like the landlords. 

1 comment:

Pete Firmin said...

Thanks Martin,very useful and informative