Thursday 2 February 2012

Confused councillors cause chaos at Call In

Tonight's Call In Overview and Scrutiny Committee on the Willesden Regeneration Project descended into chaos tonight when inattentive Labour members apparently missed a vote and enabled a motion supported by two Lib Dems on the committee to be passed. Labour councillors tried to get the vote taken again when they  realised that it put in jeopardy plans to sign the Development Agreement with Galliford Try tomorrow. They tried to argue that the chair, Cllr Ashraf had been unclear when he called for votes for and against, but legal officers ruled that Ashraf had been clear.

As the councillors floundered noisily, asking each other what was happening, the public at first made fun of them and then called for the whole lot to resign.

The motion called on the Executive to reconsider their interim service plan for the period of the Willesden Green redevelopment to include the possibility of using existing closed library buildings in order to provide a comprehensive and financially viable library service.

Legal officers present appeared to say that the effect of this was to postpone any signing of an agreement until the Executive had considered the motion from Scrutiny. This will put back the timetable for the regeneration which is already running behind schedule.The anticipated signing date was only revealed after the vote.

The next Executive is on February 13th and will already have a full agenda which includes the budget. Although the Executive routinely votes down referrals from Scrutiny Committee there will be a further chance for the public to make representations.

Eleven members of the public spoke tonight and any neutral observer would be likely to agree that they spoke better, were more attentive, and made more sense than many of the councillors.

Much of what they had to say was concerned with the poor consultation over the plans.  It emerged that the 'stakeholder consultation' consisted of two evening focus group meetings attended by 5 and 7 people respectively who were unrepresentative of Brent's population. Several complained that there had been no mention of the Willesden Green closure when the Library Transformation plans were discussed and users of the closed libraries had been told that Willesden Green was their nearest alternative,

There were pleas from several different library campaigners for the closed down libraries to be reopened to provide an interim service. If Willesden Green had been near enough to be an alternative for their closed library then the reverse must also be true. A Kensal Rise campaigner argued that there was no justification for paying rent on temporary buildings when that purpose built library was available rent free and had enough space for the Brent Archives.

Nicolette McKenzie from Mapesbury Residents  made an impassioned plea for the Willesden Bookshop. She said that most cultural centres have a bookshop.  Although the bookshop was not part of the council's core service it was part of the bigger moral contract between the council and local residents. She said that the council needed to make some compromise and show goodwill towards residents.

Alison Hopkins for Dollis Hill and Neasden residents reminded the council that they had spent £300,000 on refurbishment of Neasden and were paying rent of £55,000 plus security costs on a building that could be put to use. The area was one of high deprivation and badly need the library..

Jacky Baines said that there had been no consultation over the of the old Willesden Library building and called on the council to listen to residents. She said that an epetition had been launched on the council website. (Available HERE)

Simon Hawkins, speaking for Brondesbury residents said that the first they had heard of the proposals was on January 16th. On the  focus groups he said it was wrong that so much was decided by so few. Consultation was now available only when detailed plans existed and decisions were being made by small groups behind closed doors. He said interim arrangements were incoherent and residents needed reassurance that the project was not a housing scheme with a small ill-thought out library space. He asked what justification there was for removing the cinema. Contrasting the success of the Tricycle he said that the Willesden Green Library Centre had been badly managed and needed a manager of real calibre.

Responses from Cllr Crane (leader member for regeneration and major projects) and Andy Donald, the officer concerned, reiterated that the present building was not fit for purpose and would cost too much to refurbish and anyway the council did not have the money. A developer partnership meant that the project was cost neutral with the council gaining the freehold of the new building by handing council land (the library car park and a section of Chambers Lane) over to the developer for housing.

However it emerged during exchanges that it was the developers who had said there should be no retail in the new building and that the locally listed Old Willesden Library could not be incorporated into the design. This brought calls of 'But you are the client!' from the public seats. 

Cllr Lorber asked then what was the point of people wanting to make representations on the old building and the bookshop when it was a 'done deed'. Residents had had no say in matters that clearly concerned them.

Towards the end, Cllr Ann Hunter, who had been getting more and more agitated during Cllr Lorber's contributions, jiggling around on her seat and clapping her hand to her forehead in apparent exasperation, intervened from the public seats. She berated Cllr Lorber for his caricature of a museum outreach service and praised that of the British Museum. As a Willesden Green councillor she had been to a briefing about the building and had some  input. She had seen the indicative design and thought it was wonderful but was not allowed to tell people about it.

In response to challenges over interim arrangements Jenny Isaac said that the facilities were needed in the Willesden Green area because of the 10,000 users there and because of its high levels of deprivation. In addition to Grange Road negotiations ere in progress for another building. She could not give any details until negotiations had been completed but the council would be providing a book stock, study spaces and IT and other activities normally carried out at Willesden Green would continue to take place. She said that the council hoped to match the number of study places during the revision and exam season but there might be a shortfall at other times.  She gave very high costs for the reopening of the closed libraries that were challenged by Cllr Lorber.

Andy Donald said Galliford Try had a detailed public participation strategy and there would be a chance to make representations at the pre-planning stage, when the  project went to planning committee and during implementation of the plans. He said that council officers were having detailed discussions with Brent Irish Advisory service and the Willesden Bookshop over relocation. They were in contact with landlords and there were a number of premises available from the council perspective. The head of property had begun these discussions. Cllr Crane said that it was hoped the plans  would go to Planning Committee in July 2012 with work to start in October 2012 (possibly later after tonight's vote). As a result of this the Willesden Bookshop would be offered an extension on its premises until the council needed vacant possession.


Anonymous said...

What a shambles!..It seems nobody spoke up for keeping the old historic original library. Another piece of our history about to be swept away. Bloody they are going to build over one of the few public car parks in Willesden! Madness.
Des Brittain.

Martin Francis said...

Hi Des,

Jackie Baines spoke up for the old Willesden Library building (see above)and has launched an epetition. (link above) More on

Anonymous said...

Good stuff. Let's keep our quaint little bit of history and the open space.

Anonymous said...

Willesden Green library is busiest just after school closes, with parents picking up their children and driving them straight to the library to get books and enjoy the excellent facilities provided for schoolchildren. If the car park goes, most parents would find it impossible to find parking nearby and the library would therefore lose a huge chunk of customers. The area already has a distinct lack of parking space and closing the car park will further exacerbate the problem. There are only a handful of pay meter spaces on the high road and in the vicinity and these are exorbitant. The Sainsbury's car park further down the road is usually filled to capacity on weekdays. What the area needs is more parking, not less. It certainly doesn't need anymore shops.
There is no point in the Council refurbishing a library but depriving customers of the means to enjoy it! Either increase parking facilities (perhaps by reducing restrictions in the resident parking areas to two hours a day, like Camden and Harrow have) or leave things as they are! (Ros Pillai)