Saturday 25 February 2012

Brent Council stonewalls on all fronts

Evidence is mounting that Brent Council does not want to hear from its citizens, but sure that they know best, want to carry out decision making without the irritant of representations from the public.

At the last Brent Executive, leader of the Council Ann John, in an emotional outburst asked why people did not come and make representations about the cuts that would make the 'poor people of Brent a lot worse off'. Brent Fightback requested permission to address the Council meeting to be held on Monday February 27th on just that topic: the cuts in Brent's budget that will impact on Brent's most vulnerable groups.

The request was turned by Anne Reid, Principal Democratic Services Officer:
I have advised the Mayor, the Leader of the Council, the Chief Executive and the Borough Solicitor of your request and the view is that there have been opportunities prior to this evening at committee for you to address members. Full Council is for the Leader to clearly present the budget proposals. Accordingly, your request has not been accepted.
I requested permission to present to Council the petition calling for Willesden Bookshop to be allocated space in the proposed Willesden Cultural Centre. This was turned down by Peter Goss of Democratic Services on the grounds that only petitions with more than 5,000 signatures could be presented at Council.  I followed this up by asking then which Committee I could present it to:
Once your petition closes, you will be informed of what will happen to it. As you know the Executive has already taken decisions on this matter and so there are no current plans for the Executive to consider the matter further. It is now for the Planning Committee to consider the planning application and in the light of this I will determine how to progress your petition, taking account of the Council's petition scheme.
The petition closed on February 21st but I have heard nothing more from Democratic Services. It is interesting that the statement says that there are no current plans for the Executive to discuss the matter further. There is currently a consultation managed by Galliford Try the developers of the 90-95 unit  housing development with Cultural Centre attached, which includes 1:1 sessions with residents on February 28th and 29th and an exhibition of March 9th and 10th. If the Executive is not going to consider the matter further it is unclear what the point is of this this consultation.

The last issue concerns my Freedom of Information requesting documentation regarding the Council's deliberations regarding  privatisation of  Brent Parks Service.  Brent Council failed to meet statutory deadlines. The request was made on December 30th 2011 and the reply received only on February 21st.
The request has been turned down by Fiona Ledden, Director of Legal and Procurement Department:

In respect of the documentation that you have requested in respect of the (FOI request) this is highly sensitive and speculative information that at any point in time is the subject of initial high level consideration by Senior Officers only. It is highly possible that any such   proposals as may exist may not go for further consideration.

Ledden goes on to quote Section 36 (2) (b) (ii) of the Freedom of Information Act which she claims provides exemption 'where disclosures would or would be likely to, inhibit free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation'. She goes on to claim  Section 36 (2) (c) applies additionally or alternatively, where disclosure 'would be likely otherwise to 'prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs'.

She concludes:
There are strong public interests in accountability and transparency but there are also strong public interests in enabling officers and elected members to play their proper role in decision making and in developing ideas, which it is then appropriate to share on  wider basis.'
Ledden suggests that this is all a matter of timing and these are the grounds of increasing public  frustration in various aspects of council proposals:  the Council not publishing the criteria for bids for groups to take over libraries faced with closures, lack of financial information on the Civic Centre (commercially sensitive), 'secret' appendices on the Willesden Cultural Centre proposals and local  councillors who had seen the Cultural Centre plans being barred from discussing them with the public.

The 'timing' goes awry because the public feel that they are informed, often poorly, at a late stage and are confronted with a 'done deal'. This gives the impression of a lack of respect for residents' views and a lack of transparency and accountability. It is why groups such as those campaigning on libraries, social care and regeneration are aghast when they face the reality of council decision making.

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