Tuesday 31 January 2012

One Brent Primary to double in size and two others will expand

Brent Council is currently consulting on further changes in the size of primary schools as well as changes to the character of others.

Three primary schools are due to expand with Fryent Primary, in Church Lane, Kingsbury doubling in size. New children would be taken in year by year from January 2013 with the maximum size reached by September 2018:

Current 4-11
(R-Year 6)
Total 4-11
by Sept 2018
90 PT
54 PT
30 FT

The name of each school above is linked to the  appropriate consultation document. Consultation closes on February 15th 2012

I have argued here and in the local press that we should think very carefully before making such large primary schools. On the plus side there are economies of scale and the ability to employ a wide range of specialists and run a comprehensive  extended schools programme. However the negatives include the family atmosphere of a small school, the headteacher knowing families well, and children feeling safe and comfortable in a smaller unit. There are particular concerns about very young children and those with special education, emotional or behavioural needs. Additional numbers can also lead to the loss of playground and playing field space, school libraries and IT suites. School halls can no longer accommodate all the children in one inclusive assembly or school performance.

Building new one or two form entry primary schools is not proposed although this is an option favoured by many parents and teachers. Mention has been made of a possible new primary in Fulton Way, Wembley but no firm proposals have been put forward.

Brent Council is also consulting on a change of character for Alperton High School. The document can be accessed HERE Consultation closes on February 24th, 2012. It is proposed that Additional Resource Provision (ARP) for up to 20  school students with statements for Moderate Learning Difficulties should be opened at the lower school site in Ealing Road. The building would serve as their base but they would spend some time in the mainstream school. The provision would be for pupils with low incidence and complex needs some needs which are currently met in special school provision.

Brent Council is proposing to change the character of Vernon House Special School, Drury Way, London, NW10 0NQ, from a 30 place special school for pupils with Behaviour, Emotional, Social Difficulties (BESD) to a 35 place special school for pupils with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD for those pupils capable of accessing the mainstream curriculum with specialist support) and Children with Complex Learning Difficulties and Disabilities (CLDD) from September 2012. They claim that the change to a broader designation will increase the flexibility of the school to admit pupils with a broader range of associated needs.

The school in January 2012 had only 14 pupils on roll and in 2010-11 had an occupancy rate of 45-60%. At the same time there has been an increase in the demand for special school places for children on the autistic spectrum. There is likely to be a debate about whether such children might better benefit being in a mainstream setting with support. The consultation closed on February 24th 2012 LINK

Death of courageous Brent councillor

Cllr Alec Castle (Lib Dem, Dollis Hill) has died after a long illness. Alec Castle was a long-serving local activist and will be a great loss to the community.  He continued his work as a councillor and continued to chair committee meetings when others would have long given up.

He was a great fighter for the people of Brent. I would like to express my sympathy to Alec's friends and family.

Saturday 28 January 2012

'The Mouse that Roared': Downhills Primary School takes on Michael Gove

Michael Gove is trying to force Downhills Primary School and others in Haringey to become academies. Little did he realise how the local community would rise up against his plans. This afternoon parents, grandparents, teachers, anti-cuts activists, youth and children  marched from Downhills to Haringey Civic Centre to defend democratically accountable community schools.

They were joined by Haringey Anti-Cuts Campaign, Haringey Anti Academies Alliance, Haringey Trades Council and NUT Teacher Associations from across the capital. They received warm support from the locals out shopping and those waving from windows above the shops and the balconies of flats.

It was a spirited demonstration led by the sheer energy of the many children took part. This is the sort of determined broad-based, community demonstration, that we need to see to protect our local schools.

Congratulations Haringey!

Here are some extracts from the song lyrics (Downhills Campaign with James Redwood and Hazel Gould)

Save Our School

Save our school! Save our  school!
This is an S.O.S. to common sense,
Get us out of this mess,
And help us save our school!
Academy or communiyy?
Big business or diversity?
I know which I'd rather see,
So listen to our voice!

Save our school! Save our school!
This is an S.O.S. to common sense,
Get us out of this mess,
And help us save our school!
Our school is a family -
It's not for sale:
Not a commodity.
Hear us sing now in harmony,
And listen to our voice!

Save our school! Save our  school!
This is an S.O.S. to common sense,
Get us out of this mess,
And help us save our school!
You say you want  more parent choice,
"Let local people have a voice",
This is your Big Society:
Listen to our community,
And help us save our school!
This is an S.O.S. to common sense,
Get us out of this mess,
And help us save our school!
Please help save Downhills School.

Charity battles to stop family being split by Brent Council

This account of the travails of a Brent family on the edge of homelessness has been posted on the website of  Zacchaeus 2001, a London-based charity that seeks justice for debtors. LINK

Although Z2K is neither an immigration or refugee charity, we do often meet migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in desperate need of our help. Below is our Caseworker Yiannis’ account of how he gave Z2K’s trade mark intensive assistance to a family on the verge of homelessness. Unfortunately Brent’s behaviour is all too common among Local Authorities who will try anything to get out of providing assistance to those in need.

Mr and Mrs F was referred to us the day before his eviction, by his MP Glenda Jackson. The family were failed asylum seekers, with two young children. With nowhere to move to, we accompanied them to Brent social services. They said they could only help the children, and the parents would need to live somewhere separately. The parents were very upset when they heard this, and understandably said that that would not be an option. 

Brent then told us the Fs would need to apply for assistance under the National Assistance Act 1948, through the Refugee Council. We went to Brixton, only to be told after a long wait that they need to make a fresh asylum claim before NAS assistance can be offered. With both tenants in tears, we then went back to Brent Council and asked them to house the children and parents together. However they had not changed their positions, they would only house the children, without Mr and Mrs F. 

We asked them to reconsider, as they have a legal duty to do what is in the children’s best interest ( which involves keeping the family together whenever possible). The case was referred to ‘senior management’, only for us to wait until 5pm to be told once again that separating the parents from the children was an option being seriously considered by Brent. The mother of the children, who was already crying, had a minor panic attack, finding it very difficult to breathe or drink water. 

A few minutes later, the social worker from Brent returned and said that Brent had decided to house the whole family in a nearby BnB for one night only, to give them a chance to make a successful application for NAS assistance. No apology or explanation was offered as to why this offer had not been made until so late in the day, and after so much anguish on the part of the parents. 

The next day, as it was clear that NAS assistance would take a week to be sorted out (at least), Brent decided to house them for a further 15 days. We referred them to another organisation which could help with their immigration and NAS applications.

Friday 27 January 2012

Barnhill by-election on May 3rd

The Brent and Kilburn Times is reporting LINK that there will be a by-election in Barnhill Ward after  Cllr Judith Beckman said that she would resign in March, The by-election will be held on May 3rd, the same day as the GLA elections. The ward went Labour at the last local election after being held by Conservatives.

Pressure is now on Cllr Rev David Clues (Lib Dem-Dudden Hill) to resign. Both councillors came under pressure after it was revealed that they had moved out of Brent.

Thursday 26 January 2012

Budget pressures: homelessness and school places shortage

The pressure on Brent Council's budget and particularly those regarding the shortage of schools places and the impact of the local housing allowance cap were revealed at the Budget Overview and Scrutiny Committee of January 11th, the Minutes of which have just been published:

Andy Donald (Director of Regeneration and Major Projects) circulated a Powerpoint presentation outlining the context in which the department's budget was set, the budget pressures and other issues facing the department and the major capital projects underway.  Andy Donald explained that because the department had only been formed in October 2010 the current year was one of transition.  The year ahead was the first chance to view the department's budget as a whole and plan for the future.  The biggest pressure on the current year's budget was the level of spend on temporary accommodation which was forecast to overspend by £928,000. 
Andy Donald explained that the main reason for the overspend was due to the Local Housing Allowance cap introduced in April 2011.  The service had in the past been managed largely as a demand led service but with a rise since 2010/11 of 38% in the number of homeless applications received and an 86% increase in the placing of families into hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation, a different approach was needed. 
Actions being taken to mitigate the overspend included the provision of advice, strategies to prevent homelessness and encouragement to take housing out of the borough.  However, Andy Donald stated that the situation was only likely to get worse as Housing Benefit and wider welfare reforms were implemented.   The committee noted that a contingency budget of £1M was being held centrally to fund any final overspend in this area for the current year.  The department's agreed savings of £3.8M remained on track with £1.2M coming from the supporting people budget, £440,000 from the staffing structure review and a collection of smaller changes to the housing service. 
Andy Donald drew attention to the budget issues for the future.  By 2014/15 the borough would need the equivalent of 70 additional classrooms to cater for the increased demand for school places.  A sum of £25M had been secured from the Government to help address this but a figure in the region of £60-65M was needed.  Therefore work was underway on reviewing the Council's entire portfolio of school buildings to assess how best to use the funding secured and meet the demand.  The New Homes Bonus would appear in the Council's budget for the first time in 2012/13 in the sum of £1.068M.  It had been decided that this money would be used to support the Council's capital programme.  Andy Donald reported that it was anticipated that new rules would be passed to allow Councils to recover the total cost of their planning service which would lead to an increase in income during 2012/13.  He further explained that presently planning fees were set nationally, but if the Council was allowed to recover its total cost it would generate an additional £800,000 approximately. 
  More savings were to be taken from the supporting people service and from the housing needs transformation project.  There would also be revenue savings taken from capital projects.  A big change to the Housing Revenue Account would take place on 1 April 2012 following the Government making a one-off settlement to the Council of £197M to pay off a proportion of the HRA debt and no longer provide subsidy of £8.5M in return for the Council taking responsibility for the remaining debt and retaining the rental income. 
A business plan for how the Council would in future manage, maintain and improve the housing stock was being developed but one risk already identified were the proposed changes to Housing Benefit which would result in benefit being paid direct to the tenant rather than to the Council with consequences for rent collection levels.  It was pointed out that the national rent convergence scheme would continue and so rent levels would still be determined by the Government.

Andy Donald outlined the major capital projects included in the Council's programme, including South Kilburn, the new Civic Centre, the Willesden Green redevelopment and the schools programme. 

In answer to questions asked by members of the committee concerning housing and homelessness, Andy Donald explained that when someone first presented themselves as in need of housing the first action was to see if they could be prevented from becoming statutorily homeless but if this was not possible the Council then had a duty to house them.  If there was no permanent accommodation available then temporary accommodation was used.  The Council provided advice to people in an effort to support their housing needs before they were determined statutorily homeless.  Reference was made to the rent deposit scheme and Andy Donald stated that further details on this could be provided to members.  In answer to a question about enforcing standards, it was explained that the Council could only use housing legislation to take action against sub-standard housing if it was at least three storeys high and was only resourced to carry out its statutory role, although action could be taken using planning laws.  A review of the Council's private housing service was to be carried out.

Addressing questions around the provision of school places, Andy Donald stated that, whilst there were a number of variables that would need to be considered including land availability and building types, at best the £25M would only meet between one third and half the anticipated increased demand for primary school places. 

Regarding the New Homes Bonus, Andy Donald explained that this money was provided by the government effectively matching the Council Tax for each new property built for a period of 6 years following completion and so was based on the number of new homes provided within the borough and distributed according to a formula.  Therefore the £1.68M would continue to be received over the next five years with additional funding arising from new homes subsequently built within the borough.  He stated that more detail on this could be provided if necessary.

Andy Donald explained more fully the new arrangements for managing the HRA but pointed out that financial rules relating to the HRA remained so it would continue to be ringfenced.  Clive Heaphy (Director of Finance and Corporate Services) added that as a result of the rent convergence scheme the average rent increase in Brent for 2012/13 would be 7.2%. 

The committee had previously been informed of the new arrangements proposed for retaining business rates.  A question was therefore asked as to how competing land use would be managed with the pressure to attract new businesses into the borough to increase the level of business rates and to build new houses to benefit under the New Homes Bonus.  Andy Donald acknowledged that both would generate income but would have to be managed according to planning policy and complex modelling arrangements for different parts of the borough. 

A question was asked on whether the Council was working with any neighbouring boroughs on joint projects.  Andy Donald replied that there were some discussions taking place but that Brent was generally making the running on these.  They included the potential to share some facilities management functions, housing management services and some other service provision.   
Andy Donald was asked to explain more fully the demand on temporary accommodation.  He stated that for the year November to November just gone the number of households in hotels and bed and breakfast had increased from 139 to 250.  It was expected that by the end of the year 1635 new homeless applications would have been received of which 580 would have been accepted.  There was a need to understand what was driving this increase but it was already known that a significant number came from landlords evicting tenants. With regard to the supporting people budget, it stood at £10.8M but £1.2M savings had been made during the current financial year with an additional £600,000 being made next year and £900,000 the year after taking the budget to £9.3M by 2013/14.  The service worked with the most vulnerable people through a raft of support mechanisms all of which were now commissioned out.  This expenditure was no longer ring-fenced.  A review of the housing needs service would result in an additional 20-25 posts being deleted but Andy Donald was confident that an effective, efficient service would continue to be delivered.  He offered to forward members more detail on the restructuring if they wished to receive it. 

Brent in secret talks to out-source libraries, parks and leisure services?

The Ealing Gazette is reporting this week that Ealing, Brent and Harrow Councils are in talks to out-source libraries, sports and leisure facilities throughout the three boroughs. The boroughs are alleged to have met with seven potential providers last November:
EALING Council is in talks with Brent and Harrow to establish a shared, privately-managed leisure service to save the libraries. Plans could see the council hiring independent providers to manage both libraries and sports and leisure facilities across the neighbouring boroughs. 

It must reduce its overall budget by £85 million by 2014 but pledged to save the vital community hubs from closure last summer. 
A shared service could reduce expenditure through a smaller management team and shared IT and human resources costs. 

The authorities met with seven potential providers last November to discuss taking over just libraries or sports facilities, or both. A formal decision is expected later this year.
 LINK to full story 

However Cllr Paul Lorber says that this relates to leisure centres only - libraries were specifically excluded.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Green Budget amendment tackles real issues facing Londoners

The amendment to the London Mayor's budget proposed by Darren Johnson Green Party Assembly Member & seconded by Jenny Jones AM would help Londoners facing high unemployment, falling real incomes, soaring rents and fares, as well as environmental problems such as dangerous air pollution and cold homes. The Green alternative budget would tackle these problems head on.
It would help low income Londoners, and reduces inequality 
It would protect and improve key services, including safer neighbourhood policing, public transport and cycling infrastructure
It would deliver warm energy efficient homes and cleaner air 
It would keep the council tax the same, reduces the fare rise, and raises extra money from motorists.

Darren Johnson said:

"We will bring down the fare rise below inflation, saving a typical household about £40 a year. Instead we will raise more from motorists and introduce a congestion charge zone around the heavily congested and polluted Heathrow area. Our budget provides funds for a feasibility study of a fairer "pay-as-you-go" road pricing scheme, which would charge a rate per mile driven, with higher charges for more congested roads and times of day. This could provide a significant new income stream of around £1b a year, with cuts to fares ensuring it will be financially neutral for a typical household, and substantially less congested roads with cleaner air through out London."

Our police budget does not change the total amount of money but it does change priorities. We provide more resources for safer neighbourhood policing, road safety, and preventative work with young people and gangs. We are able to achieve this partly through employing (usually cheaper) civilian staff wherever they can do the work as well or better than a warranted officer. Success should be measured by results not by uniformed officer numbers.

London's serious air pollution problem needs radical measures and proper investment. This is provided by the Green budget, which will fund the introduction of a Very Low Emission Zone in central London where only clean vehicles are allowed, replace an additional 100 standard buses with cleaner hybrid models, and help taxi owners replace polluting vehicles.

Without increasing the council tax, the alternative Green budget radically recasts priorities to make real progress in tackling some of London's most long-standing problems."

Town Hall Library invaded from the south

Brent Town Hall Library is looking a mess at the moment, with books, boxes and bookcases all over the place. The reason? Books and bookcases from Neasden Library have been shipped up Blackbird Hill to the Town Hall following the closure of the library.  The ill-matched furniture will take some sorting out and the books will take even longer.  The Town Hall Library, which was carefully redesigned a while ago with excellent access and circulation space is looking rather a shambles. Staff have been cut as part of the Transformation programme so it may take a little time to get it organised.

In 2013 the whole lot will be packed up again to be transferred to the new Civic Centre Library. Local people from Chalkhill are just waking up to the fact that they will soon lose their local library and will instead have to travel some distance to the Civic Centre. This particularly affects children who were able to go to the Town Hall Library independently.  There is additional concern that the Civic Centre Library will be unavailable on event days and event evenings when large crowds are attending the adjacent stadium  The Stadium is staging an increasing number of events to make money to pay back the building loan. There is speculation about on just how many Saturdays the Civic Centre Library Hub will be closed or inaccessible.

It's not just the Town Hall Library which is a mess!

Willesden Regeneration Plans Called In

The Willesden Library Regeneration Project is to be examined by the Call-in and Overview Scrutiny Committee of Brent Council at its meeting on Wednesday February 1st (7.30pm Committee Room 1, Brent Town Hall).

The call-in queries the delegation of decision making to the developer, the lack of detail in the proposals, interim arrangements while the development takes place and the consultation process:

Willesden Green Redevelopment Project

The reasons for the call in are:-

1.     Delegation of authorisation of detailed design (recommendation 2.4 in the report): it is appropriate that a decision of this significance is signed off by members, especially if the consultation process or other pressures result in a need to reconsider elements of the scheme or choose between options.

2.     Interim service delivery strategy (recommendation 2.5)

(a)    Lack of clarity over important aspects of the alternative provision including the size of the premises at Grange Road and details of other premises in the Willesden Green area being explored.

(b)    Lack of serious consideration of the use of available closed libraries to aid the delivery of services as evidenced by the perfunctory nature of paragraph 6.29 in the report.

(c)    It is incorrect to state that the provision of transport services to aid access to alternative study space is outside the council’s powers (para. 9.23). The council has a number of potentially relevant powers including the power of well-being.

3.     Lack of clarity in the papers provided to members at the Executive meeting about the design and functions of the proposed new building including:

(a)    No information (even in broad terms) about how the available floorspace will be split between the different uses and the projected income from the proposed commercial uses.

(b)    No information about the architectural and design approach to the development or the planning considerations and risks (other the risk of local objections set out on page 54) that the design has to take into account.

(c)    Lack of clear explanation about how the zero net capital cost will be achieved.

(d)    Inadequate consideration of the risk of construction costs being greater than anticipated and the extent to which the additional costs might fall on the council if they are not the responsibility of the contractor; and inadequate assurance about financial control of the project subsequent to detailed design development and prior to practical completion.

4.     Defects in the decision making process including lack of information provided to members about the revenue consequences of the recommended decision (section 7 asserts that all future revenue costs will be contained with existing budget allocations for the management of the WGLC but there are no figures to support this. Additionally there is no mention of the revenue implications of the non-cultural centre functions such as office space and contact centre).

5.     Lack of access to Background Papers despite requests in good time

6.     Consultation strategy (recommendation 2.7)

(a)    The agreed consultation strategy does not include any objectives nor does it specify what scope there is for the current design to be altered in response to the consultation. It is therefore unclear to what extent this is a genuine consultation strategy and to what extent it is simply a public engagement strategy designed to provide reassurance and promote the project to stakeholders.

(b)    There is no mention in the report, recommendation or consultation strategy of reporting back the outcome of the consultation to members (Executive or Scrutiny) to enable consideration of the views expressed.

Suggested action for the Call In Overview and Scrutiny Committee to take:-

·         Consider the revenue implications of the decision to assure value for money and the other issues raised above.

Recommend that:-

·         The decision about the detailed design and costs be taken by the Executive and not delegated;

·         The interim service delivery strategy be revised to provide more library floorspace and more accessibility to the museum collection than the present proposals deliver, possibly including use of currently closed library premises to avoid the need to pay rent;

·         Objectives be set for the consultation strategy; the process for considering and responding to consultation feedback be clarified and publicised to stakeholders in due course; a resident / stakeholder liaison group be created as part of the consultation strategy.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

First details of proposed Willesden Green Cultural Centre

...but will this shoe box be dwarfed by bloks of flats?
Galliford Try have delegated the designing of the new Willesden Cultural Centre to a Leeds based architects firm, removing the project even further from local people and designers who know the local area well. They have released the first images of the building which will replace the current library and bookshop. No space is allocated for the bookshop.
Allford Hall Monaghan Morris and Architecture 519 are pleased to announce they have been selected for the Willesden Green Cultural Centre Redevelopment in Brent with Galliford Try Regeneration. 
AHMM are leading the masterplan, which incorporates a new 4,000+ sq. m. library and cultural centre, with approximately 90 residential units by Architecture 519. A compact, atrium-centred scheme with a dramatic presence on the High Road will replace the existing 1980’s library, creating a community landmark in Brent. Activating the ground floor will be a café, children’s library and ‘creative cluster’ of large spaces tied into the masterplan through a significant new public space by Gillespies Landscape. 
The team, supported by URS Scott Wilson for structure and services, expect to submit a planning application in the spring, with completion in 2014 for the entire site."
Observers at last night's Council Meeting said that the council appeared confident that the project would go ahead with planning approveal by June/July 2012 with construction beginning in September 2012.

However a strong campaign is developing of those who are opposed the the redevelopment. They are joined by others with a particular interest in preserving the old Willesden Library.  Meanwhile Cllr James Powney, lead member for libraries, has intervened on the bookshop issue before the e-petition has closed and before it has been presented to the council.  As usual he appears to have made up his mind before hearing the arguments. This is what he posted on his BLOG:
Martin Francis of Brent Green Party has started a petition about the Willesden Bookshop.  Brent Council has given the bookshop notice to quit so that it can redevelop the Willesden Library Centre.  The petition appears to be arguing that the bookshop should be included as part of the new Willesden Library centre.  Presumably, Martin wants the Council to help the bookshop to temporary premises, and then to move back 18 months later.  Would any retailer really find it attractive to have two disruptive and expensive moves in a period of less than two years? Given that any retail space in the new library centre will be much higher quality than the current provision, the rent is likely to be much higher.  Would it not be more sensible to move to premises somewhere in the immediate area?
I have lodged the petition as a local resident rather than on behalf of the Green Party. As I write it has 278 signatures. Please encourage more people to sign so that Cllr Powney is forced to listen to us.

Here is another message from a concerned local resident:

I am also very unhappy about the proposed redevelopment of Willesden Library. Proper consultation has been distinctly lacking. 

We will be losing one of the more attractive corners of Willesden - currently providing much needed light and space in what is already a narrow and crowded high street; a much loved and well used book shop; a historic Willesden landmark in the old library building and a Library Centre which already houses an art gallery, museum, lots of space which has been allowed to deteriorate rather than be fully utilised as well as a decent sized library which the the south of the borough will now need following the closure of other local libraries.

The new plans seem to be far more about housing and council office space rather than a 'cultural hub'.

Monday 23 January 2012

"Brent school system works. Don't mess with it." say teacher unions

Brent Pupils ate Carbon Reduction project
 Against the background of some Brent schools considering opting out of the local authority system, the local teacher unions have issued a strong defence of that system as one which has put Brent schools in the top 10% nationally:
A report by Think Tank 'The Centre Forum' has published a list of performance of schools in all local authorities across England. Of the 152 local authorities looked at in the report Brent came in at 13th, putting it firmly in the top 10% in the country.

To quote from the Report, “Indeed, pupils of all types – including the poorest pupils and those from typically under-performing ethnic groups – perform better in London than in all other regions of the UK.”

The Brent joint teacher unions believes that this vindicates their belief in the state system. Shane Johnschwager, NASUWT secretary said, “This report proves that for Brent's schools, and their pupils,  co-operation is better than competition. Brent schools have the evidence now to show the successes of a decade of school improvement. For the academies programme to break apart the family of schools and jeopardise this process would be lunacy. If it ain’t broke don't fix it.”

Hank Roberts, ATL Secretary said, “Contrary to what Michael Gove proclaims private is not always best. Local authorities can work as Brent's case amongst others proves. Brent
Authority can be justly proud of its achievements and the Brent population should stand by its retention as opposed to it being dismantled through the government's academy and free school privatisation scheme.”

Jean Roberts, NUT Joint Secretary said, “Teachers in Brent schools work very hard to provide the best education for the wide range of children they teach. The overwhelming majority of them want to remain as local authority schools not to become Gove academies.”
The report should give ammunition for a concerted campaign locally of councillors, teachers, parents and pupils, for a defence of democratically accountable, comprehensive, local schools.

Willesden Green Library Regeneration: the case against

Guest posting  from Sophia MacGibbon, a Willesden resident who spoke at the recent Willesden Area Consultation Forum. There will be an Executive report on the Willesden Green Library Regeneration at tonight's Council Meeting, 7pm, Brent Town Hall

I have a number of concerns about the Willesden Green Regeneration proposal as outlined by the Council

I find it hard to see what exactly is being proposed. The document is full of good sounding phrases, but short on what they actually mean. Because of that I cannot see whether the proposed development is going to give the people of Brent more than they are getting now. In fact all the vague proposals could be delivered in the existing structure with better management and some investment in improved technology. 

I am worried about the proposal for a number of specific reasons:-

1 The proposal will, I believe result in the demolition and loss of the original library building, currently housing an Irish Advice centre. This building is an historical and architectural gem and these are in short supply in Brent. It would be an act of vandalism to destroy it      

 2. The loss of car parking space. I know it is environmentally fashionable to knock car use and proposals that appear to make bringing cars into the town centre more difficult should be the current good thing to do. However I believe the councillors should study the finding of the survey undertaken for the Government by Mary Portas.  She argues strongly that for local high roads to stand a chance against shopping centres etc, there has to be parking provided at minimal cost. While it is possible to park at Sainsbury’s, the space is limited and I fear that many of the shops further along the High Road will lose custom if the car park at the library were to go. Many people park, use the Library centre and then nip out to the local shops. What rate benefit the council might accrue from residential development of the parking space may well be offset by the loss of business rates if yet more shops close down. And the negative impact on the High Road could be devastating.

The closure of 6 of the borough’s libraries has meant that may people have to travel considerable distances to get access to a library. The loss of the car parking facility will hit the elderly and people bringing young children to the library to enjoy the under5s sessions, etc. These sessions are an important way of developing a love of books and a confidence in using libraries. The closure of the car park could be argued as discrimination as it will impact on some sections of the population more than others

3. The loss of the open space at the front of the library centre will be a shame, especially as there is beginning to be a real effort to use the space more frequently and imaginatively. There is an ongoing attempt to establish a regular market there that has the potential to become successful, there things take time, and the current sculptural art work is a delight.  The High Road is mainly narrow and quite dark, the open space around the library is a welcome break of light and air.

4. What is wrong with the current building? I read in the proposal document that it is expensive and not fit for purpose. In what way is it not fit for purpose? Everything that seems to be being proposed could go on in the existing centre if it was properly managed. Currently many of the features of the current building are idle. Why? How come people have been able to establish a successful cinema in most unlikely premises in Kensal Rise, (The Lexi) while the purpose built cinema with a car park is unused? Good management should have dealt with that in a way that could have been profitable to the council. Likewise the bar/cafe area.  Cafe culture is rapidly growing all round the borough and that cafe should have been a successful and profitable business, bringing rent revenue in for years. A recent successful art/craft project showed the real potential of the space. The underused upstairs spaces could have been utilised in ways envisaged in the proposals for redevelopment.  The current centre is expensive because it is underused and little imagination has been shown both to exploit the space and make money out of it. If a new centre is built what guarantee is there that it won’t be poorly, expensively and unimaginatively managed.

5. The loss of the bookshop. Bookshops are struggling across the country and having one still surviving on the High Road is to be applauded. The High Road is increasingly reducing to pound shops, all hours’ grocers and fast food outlets. Any shops that provide variety and in the case of the bookshop, culture should be encouraged and supported. While attempts to get current unused shops available at reduced rents, there are only to be for a limited period and this proposal is not a permanent solution for a shop such as the bookshop. The shop provides an invaluable service to many local schools as it deals with their book orders. The schools will struggle if the shop goes.

6. I fear for the future of the library aspect of the proposed centre when I see the current provision described as “warehousing books”. What is being proposed, a library without books? Already much of the library space is taken up with the provision of a free internet cafe. While I think the provision for study space, including internet provision is invaluable, much of the current space is not used for that, but by people sending emails. Moreover student study space is not the only use of the library and despite the increasing use of eBooks; hard copy books are still the central purpose for libraries and will be for many years to come. If in the future technology proves me wrong, it will require a small investment to upgrade the provision.

7. I worry about the council’s belief in the value of public/ private partnerships. Is there a real guarantee that the Brent citizens and ratepayers will get as much out of this proposed development as the developers will or will they at the end not quite be able to deliver the state of the Art space that was envisaged in the original proposal? The disruption and poor provision that will last for months if not years may at the end mean that we land up with something not much better than we have now, while losing valuable local assets.

Note: More than 250 people have now signed the epetition asking the Council to allocate space in the new Cultural Centre (if it goes ahead) for the Willesden Bookshop. Please encourage friends and contacts to sign. LINK

A campaign is also emerging to preserve the old Willesden Library building which is locally listed.

Sunday 22 January 2012

This is what a real community school looks like! Support Downhills' fight against Gove

I don't mind telling you that this video moved me. It sums up all of what is best about primary schools and how they can bring a community together. Michael Gove doesn't know what he has taken on!

There's a demonstration supporting the school's fight against being forced to become an academy next Saturday January 28th

Labour the 'Third Tory Party' on cuts - Lucas

Is a council tax rise to protect services an option?

Local government is faced with real dilemmas regarding funding cuts imposed by the Coalition which they then have to pass on by cutting public services. Implementing cuts but 'protecting vital services' or 'protecting the most vulnerable' became the policy of many councils . When it was pointed out that the scale of the cuts made that impossible and they should refuse to make the cuts, they said that if they did that the cuts would then be made by people less sensitive to local needs. Early on Brent Council seemed to be arguing that they were making the cuts so cleverly that people would not notice the difference. However recently they have painted a much bleaker picture and admitted that the cuts threatened the very existence of viable local government.

No council, including the Green led Brighton and Hove City Council, have yet refused to make the cuts or set an 'illegal budget'. Clearly such a policy has to start somewhere and will only really be effective if it is a start of a movement by many councils. Someone has to take the lead and perhaps Brighton should have done. I have argued that Brent Labour should initiate such a campaign amongst London councils. Whilst not advocating refusing to set a budget  Cllr Ann John, leader of Brent Council,  recently conceded that if there was a groundswell of opinion there could be a joint approach to the Coalition government.  There is little time now for such a campaign ahead of the 2012-13 budget setting.

However, some councils, starting with Brighton and Hove, have taken a different step to protect services, albeit still implementing some cuts. The have decided to spurn the government's grant for freezing council tax, and gone ahead and tabled increases. The Budget Report that went before Brent Council, warned that a council tax freeze over several years would seriously erode the Council's revenue base. Cllr Muhammed Butt,  lead member for resources, said that the government grant was a 'trap' and would result eventually in a loss in revenue but Ann John said that Brent Labour had made a manifesto commitment to keep the council tax low. She noted however that some Tory councils were now in revolt and things might change.

According to Brent's figures the impact of raising the Council Tax by 2.5% would be significant (figures in bold in brackets below):

Budget Gap
2012-13 £m
2013-14 £m
2014-15 £m
2015-16  £m
4.4 (4.4)
6.4 (1.1)
22.5 (19.7)
16.1 (13.1)
4.4 (4.4)
10.8 (5.5)
33.3  (25.2)
49.4 (38.3)

Brighton and Hove has led the field with a council tax rise of 3.5% but have been followed by Darlington Borough Council. Leicester City Council. Middlesbrough Council. Nottingham City Council, Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council, Stockton-on Tees Borough Council and Stoke-on -Trent City Council who are all Labour authorities. They have been joined with lower increases by Tory authorities, Chelmsford (2.46%), Peterborough City (2.95%) and Surrey County Council (2.99%).  Whilst losing the government grant the rise enables them to have a net increase in revenue and this safeguard some services.

Eric Pickles, Communities and Local Government Secretary, has lost no time in denouncing these councils. He said that 'a vote against the council tax freeze is a vote for punishing tax rises.....councillors have a moral duty to sign up to keep down the cost of living'. Councils also have a moral duty to maintain services for their residents. A council tax rise can be seen as a different way of shifting the cost of the economic crisis on to ordinary people and it is not a particularly progressive tax, but at the same time it shares the cost of preserving services for the most vulnerable amongst all residents.

It is certainly a strategy that deserves debate and Greens in Brighton and Hove have had an extended consultation with local residents about its budget which was opposed by the 'Purple Opposition Coalition' of Labour and Conservatives.

Breaking ranks with Labour,the GMB in Brighton which represents many council workers, has given its approval to the Greens' council tax proposals.

Branch secretary Mark Turner said:
The GMB agrees that the plans to increase council tax by 3.5% this year are in the best long term interests of the city.

The Coalition government offer of a freeze in council tax is a bribe that would quickly leave the city much worse off, and less able to provide the services that residents expect and need.

It seems that Brighton Labour and Conservative parties have not grasped the financial realities of the long term damage taking the council tax freeze would create.

The city already faces extreme challenges because of the Coalition's huge reduction in the grant to the council - taking the freeze offer would make the situation even worse.

While the increase may seem unfair to residents, the truth is that we will all be much worse off without it, not just the council staff who will lose their jobs, but the whole city would suffer as services deteriorate needlessly.
Because Brent Council made a decision to freeze council tax before putting forward a budget we have not been able to have a debate about this in Brent. A decision to raise council tax can be seen as still making ordinary people pay for the economic crisis caused by the bankers and hitting them when incomes are frozen and inflation rising. It can also be seen as the only way to preserve vital council services and spreading the load across the population.

Next year I believe Brent Council should have a full and open debate about the options available as the Brighton Greens managed recently. Formulating a 'needs led' budget with local people, trades unionists and voluntary organisations would give a firm basis for going out and campaigning against Coalition cuts and would be a way of preserving local democracy.

An independent comment on the Brighton budget process can be seen HERE

Brent Council Meeting on Monday January 23rd

There is a full Council meeting tomorrow at 7pm at the Town Hall (Link to Agenda on side panel).
 The Council Executive  will be reporting on:

1. Willesden Green Redevelopment Project
2. Cross borough working on sports and leisure facilities
3. Waste and recycling
4. School places
5. Update on Customer Contact Project
6. New Civic Centre

Thursday 19 January 2012

Brent Labour takes on fight for community schools as secondaries consider academy options

The academies battle field

It was a busy day on the academies front in Brent yesterday.

At lunchtime a joint meeting of unions at Alperton High School voted unanimously for strike action if the school's governing body decided to apply for academy status. They called for the governing body to support the unions' opposition to academy or trust status. If the decision was to consider academy status they demanded a fair public debate and a secret ballot of staff and parents.

In the evening the Alperton governing body decided not to go ahead with academy conversion at this stage but instead agreed to invite the Cooperative Trust to handle a consultation process with five options:

1. Seek other partners to become a Cooperative Education Partnership which would require no change in the school's status.
2. Become a single school Cooperative Trust School which means that the school would remain maintained but change from a Foundation to a Trust school.
3. Become a Cooperative Trust in partnership with other schools (eg neighbouring primary schools). The schools would remained in the maintained sector with one Trust Board bur separate governing bodies.
4. Become a Cooperative Trust as a lone school or in partnership with others with a view to moving on to Cooperative Academy conversion. This would gain the 'benefits' of academy status but embed Cooperative values and ethos.
5. Maintain the status quo, maintained Foundation school.

In the South of Brent, Queen's Park Community School governing body, is concerned that it will be the only secondary school not looking at academy status, but has made it clear that it would like to stay as it is - a community school in the Local Authority. Though they are keeping abreast of the Coop moves in the borough they will have been heartened to hear that Alperton has not decided yet whether to go down that route.

While the Alperton Governing Body was meeting, down in Stonebridge, Labour Councillors and Labour nominated governors were meeting with some local teachers to discuss the current issues in school organisation with particular reference to academies. I attended at the invitation of Cllr Mary Arnold, lead member for children and families.

Melissa Benn, who is the parent of a child at a local community secondary school, gave an over-view of the current situation and some of the contradictions of Coalition policy. Academies had been able to boost their results by using vocational qualifications but Michael Gove had criticised such qualifications. By changing the rules to convert 'good' and 'outstanding' schools to academy status, the government had made academy results look better. Michael Wilshaw had been appointed as an independent chief of Ofsted but was also linked with academy provider ARK. She suggested the long-term aim was destruction of local authorities with a substitute unelected 'middle tier'. Academy chains were likely to move in to fill that space with 'for profit' schools not far behind. Labour had been stuck for 18 months, failing to react. She quoted an overheard conversation between Labour MPs 'we don't have an education narrative any more'.

Mary Arnold said that they had to recognise the pressure for academy status for short-term gain. It was important to recognise the impact on the whole Brent community of schools of fragmentation and the financial loss to the authority through top-slicing of the budget. The latter would affect the LA's ability to provide viable services. She said that present academies cooperated in the Brent 'family of schools', one less so than the others. She said that the role of the LA was essential and needed to be publicised by governors. These included:
  • strategic planning of school places
  • tackling underperformance of schools and particular groups of pupils
  • meeting the needs of vulnerable children including looked after children, those with special education needs and those who had been excluded from school
In a key passage in her briefing paper she said:
The local authority believes that there will be overall adverse effects on children and young people if strong collaboration and collective responsibility is not maintained and if the LA education function reduces to the extent that statutory responsibilities cannot effectively be fulfilled.
Cllr Arnold said that she expected a good take-up of the council's traded services for schools in 2011-12 . (Schools 'buy-in' these services but can also go to other providers). I pointed out that it was hard to back-up calls to remain with the local authority when they were cutting their services and staff reductions were making them less efficient. The campaign against academies and campaign against cuts were part of the same struggle.

Hank Roberts said that the issue was one of democracy and the right of staff and parents to have a secret ballot on academy proposals, with the unions taking strike action if the demand was not met. I added that schools did not belong to individual headteachers or even governing bodies, but to the whole community. In a sense academy conversion meant that our schools were being stolen from us. The need to involve parents and inform them of the negative issues association with academies was stressed by a number of contributors with calls for joint meetings of parents and governors. I asked if the database of parents held by Brent Council could be used to initiate ballots of parents if schools refused to hold one.

Among the suggestions to make Labour more proactive on the issue were:

1. Support for the right to hear a balanced debate pro and anti-academy and a right to an indepenent ballot, for and against, or parents and staff. Governing bodies would be expected to take the result into consideration. There was also a sugegstion that student actionm such as that at Kingsbiry High, hould also be supported.
2. A leaflet about the issue for distribution to parents.
3. Lobbying by councillors of schools where there was no nominated Labour governor if they were considering conversion.
4. Promotion of the services offered by the education authority.
5. A Brent Governors' One Day Conference on the academies and free schools issue with a 'for and against' debate and information available.
6. The relaunch of an Association of Brent School Governors
7. The formation of a broad-based campaign to defend community schools in Brent.

Caroline Lucas on Question Time tonight

Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP, will appear on BBC Question Time at 10.35pm this evening, alongside Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, co-chairman of the Conservative Party, Stephen Twigg MP, Labour's shadow education secretary, Germaine Greer, feminist writer and academic, and Charles Moore, columnist and former editor at the Telegraph and the Spectator.

The programme will be available to watch again here once it has been broadcast: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01b3cdw

Preston Library Campaigners Fight On

A great message on a gloomy day:

Pay London Living Wage, supermarkets told

Darren Johnson, Green Party London Assembly Member,  has called on supermarkets, the Mayor and Government to make work pay for all workers in London, following an investigation by the Fair Pay Network into low pay in the four largest supermarket chains.

Last year the National Minimum Wage fell further behind the cost of living in the capital, rising 2.5% while the London Living Wage – calculated to cover basic living costs in the capital – rose by 5.7%. The higher rise in the London rate was attributed to benefit and tax credit cuts, and rises in food costs, average rents and public transport fares.

Darren Johnson commented:
The minimum wage isn’t keeping up with the rising cost of living in London, forcing more parents to work two jobs to make ends meet. The Government needs to ramp the minimum wage up to be a genuine living wage, but instead they are letting the gap grow wider.

The Mayor of London needs to get on his bully pulpit and call for all employers in London to prioritise pay rises for the lowest paid above bonuses for chief executives. In this age of obscene inequality we cannot leave it to employers to make sure they pay their staff enough for a basic standard of living.

Jenny Jones calls for St Paul's Camp to Stay

Responding to news reports that the City of London Corporation has won its High Court bid to evict protesters from outside St Paul’s Cathedral, Jenny Jones, London Assembly Member and Green Party candidate for London Mayor, has made the following statement:
The Occupy camp outside St Paul’s has for the last three months given a voice to the frustrations felt by many over the current economic situation. The protest has forced issues up the agenda and into the news, such as high executive pay. It’s a pity a completely peaceful protest drawing attention to the inequality in our society is not allowed to continue. 
The Occupy Camp may have lost their court case but they have succeeded in changing the debate – they have drawn attention to ideas such as the introduction of Tobin Tax, abolishing the City of London and sensible banking regulation. When I joined the camp I met articulate young people concerned about the current economic situation with ideas for a different way of doing things. The Mayor has made some harsh and unfair criticisms of the Occupy protesters, and I believe that we should allow this camp to remain rather than stifle protest because it’s inconvenient.

Wednesday 18 January 2012

Spread the word on Willesden Bookshop - Area Forum tonight

I am unable to attend the Willesden Area Consultative Forum this evening as I am attending another meeting. The Forum is at 7pm, College of North West London, Denzil Road. I hope others will get there early to book a Soapbox to speak on Willesden Bookshop, the regeneration of Willesden Library Centre, and the loss of the locally listed Victorian Willesden Library, a much appreciated local landmark. Cllr Crane told the Brent Executive on  Monday that none of the developers who submitted bids could find a way to incorporate the listed building into the new development,.

As I write there are 186 signatories on the Willesden Bookshop e-petition. Please encourage people to sign and circulate the link. E-PETITION LINK

Many thanks.

'Scrap the whole Brent Cross Regeneration Plan'- Brent Cross Coalition

The Brent Cross Coalition has  welcomed the collapse of what they call  'the grotesque, car-based Brent Cross scheme'. However. they say it is totally unacceptable to still go ahead with the 'easy-profit shopping centre expansion', which they have been told  told is a 'possibility'. Neighbouring Brent Council fought this successfully in the late 1990s, and is likely to again. 

The Coalition for a Sustainable Brent Cross-Cricklewood Plan say:

We demand the whole plan is scrapped, and the arrogant local developers, and their ineffective PR company, are removed from the project.

Measures in the new Localism Act mean that over-bearing property companies, in alliance with the conceited Barnet Council, cannot get away with “business as usual”. This is a great day for people-power – not Hammerson plc and not Mike Freer (former Barnet leader, now MP).

We want development based on people’s aspirations for a sustainable, low-carbon, exciting regeneration of the area. This means starting from scratch, and will also obviously have to wait for improvements in the economy.

The developers have wasted many years – not ONE home has been built, not ONE transport improvement. Barnet Council has also wasted many hours of work in promoting something nobody wanted - their web site still estimates 29,000 extra cars every day in the Brent Cross area, which would cause traffic misery.

The developers have just received planning permission for a small building at Brent Cross – but have resorted to making the application from a tax haven in the Channel Islands. They have no shame, and are behaving no better than bankers.

Lia Colacicco, Co-ordinator of the Brent Cross Coalition, said:

“The regeneration was always a mirage; despite the PR spin, the developers were only ever committed to building a few hundred new housing units anyway. In return for cheaply purchasing large swathes of public land, their main return to the local population would have been gridlocked traffic. I hope the next deal is more transparent, and involves a stretch of light rail to link to local tube lines.”

Alison Hopkins, Dollis Hill resident, said:

“What we are being offered now is little different from the rejected shopping centre planning application of 13 years ago. We will still get lots of extra traffic, but no transport improvements. The developers want to 'pick the low-hanging fruit' of what pays out quick profits. The Brent Cross Waste Incinerator seems to be a dead project now, but we will continue to campaign, to make absolutely sure.”

David Howard, Chair of the Federation of Residents Associations of Barnet, said:

“The Brent Cross Cricklewood development would have had a negative impact on the infrastructure and the environment of much of North London and for generations to come. Brian Coleman cannot quote my phrase of “hobbit homes”, since he has done nothing to stop the scheme, and we have. We need the public land at Brent Cross to be kept out of the hands of the developers, and corridors across it reserved for future light railway to Brent Cross Northern Line station, and to other local areas.”

Councillor Shafique Choudhary, London Borough of Brent, said:

"Unfortunately, this probably means that the developers and Barnet council are trying to get what they wanted all along, which is the expansion of their Brent Cross 'out-of-town' shopping centre, with no other benefits. This is something that my borough, the neighbouring London Borough of Brent, fought long and hard, but successfully against, in the late 1990s. That included making a convincing case at an appeal inquiry to a Planning Inspector, who found in our favour. The Brent Cross Coalition and Brent Council may have another fight on their hands!

Willesden Observer on Willesden Green Library and Bookshop

Follow this LINK

Burying Brent Council at the Wembley Consultative Forum

In what at times seemed to be a valediction for Brent Council, Cllr Ann John told the Wembley Area Consultative Forum, that by 2014 the Council would be much smaller. It would have withdrawn from the provision of many services, schools would be out of local authority control and school services would be greatly reduced or have gone completely. In what she said was a 'bleak picture' she said the Housing Benefit Cap would move many families out of the area.

In reviewing the cooperative arrangements with other West London boroughs through the West London Alliance, she said that this opened the way for some to press for much bigger local authorities, a London Borough of West London, which would put local democracy as we know it at risk in the future.

There will be a further £14m cuts in the next financial year following the £42m this year. 540 council jobs have gone in the last 18 months. Ann John said that although the Budget Report had said that the freeze in Council Tax was undermining the long-term council finances but Labour had a manifesto commitment to keep it low and no London borough planned an increase. There were signs that attitudes may be changing with some Tory councils in revolt.

Challenged from the floor that given the Coalition cuts the Council was not able to deliver the services required by Brent residents and that the Council needed to campaign against the Coalition, she gave the example of cuts in the popular park warden services. She said that this contributed to children's and women's safety and had led to an increased use of parks but it was an optional rather than core service and so had been cut. She said that we needed a groundswell of opinion  to approach the government.

Asked about whether the new Civic Centre was now too large for the much diminished Brent workforce she said that it was much more than office space for council bureaucrats and would provide library, arts and retail space.