Thursday 27 September 2012

Butt on the rack says "We want to go back to what Labour stands for"

Speaking at an open meeting of Brent Trades Union Council yesterday evening, Brent Council leader Muhammed Butt admitted that some of the decisions the  council had made could have been made more wisely and that things could have been done differently. He said that he wants to take residents' views into account more in the future and that desire had caused some 'push back', which had culminated in the argument with Gareth Daniel.

He said that he wanted to take a detailed look at the council's budget, "How we provide services and why, reviewing every service."  He said that all directly employed council workers would receive the London Living Wage from October 1st  and that the council would be writing to schools to urge them to pay the LLW. He would be meeting with the London Living Wage Foundation to find ways of ensuring all the council's suppliers were London Living Wage compliant. He said that given the current difficult times the council had to do something positive to put money in people's pockets.

Other initiatives were to look at tenancies and how the council could improve standards without increasing rents, extend collective  energy procurement to include residents as well as council buildings and schools, and find ways of strengthening voluntary organisations such as the Credit Union, Private Tenants Group and the Law Centre.

He said, "We want to go back to what Labour stands for and why we are here."

In the discussion Butt was urged to recognise that the Labour Party was much more than just a council, it was part of the labour movement, and thus should be a campaigning  organisation against the capitalist system. He was asked how he was planning to organise a fightback alongside trades unions and the community.

Butt responded, "Me being here is just a start. I am willing to go anywhere, whether to a warm reception or a hostile one, to have a dialogue."

 He said that the Labour Group had appointed a new local organiser who would help get their message across and have a dialogue to move things forward, "We are starting campaigning and need to raise awareness. We want to make that change and if we don't our residents will suffer."

Asked about the budget process and council tax increases and urged to construct a needs budget as a campaigning tool,  he said that with the changes in the consultation system (The Area Consultation Forums have been replaced by Brent Connects) with a member/officer Any Questions type panel there would be more of a dialogue. Council Tax rises of 2.5% and 3.5% had been factored into budget planning but the council were waiting to see what other London councils were doing. The government's announcement of the settlement had been delayed until December but the council wanted an  indication before then. The council were also lobbying the government over the additional 60,000-70,000 extra residents indicated by the latest census which could be worth an additional £4m . This could negate the need for a rise in council tax because the council would only get 65% of the money raised by an increase He indicated that because of the delays the statutory consultation may run out of time.  He invited people to feed specific suggestions and questions into the budget making process.

When others present pursued the issue of making a needs based budget (ie deficit budget)  Cllr Butt said they were looking at campaigning  against the cuts. However, "We can oppose the cuts but budgets have to be set. We wouldn't be doing anyone any favours if the commissioners came in. They would keep only statutory services such as schools and adult social care. We would lose Sports Centres for example. We would land ourselves in more problems by taking that route. Instead we will have a dialogue which may mean working with other London boroughs. If you are asking us to take a lead, we will take a lead."

Outlining the sums the council needed to run services he said that government funding to Brent  was now £152m, was £192m, and by 2016 would be £110m.  Schools and Adult Social Care took £140m of this. The council needed £250m to run services so this total had to be made up from Council Tax and fees and charges.

Another speaker told Butt that a needs budget could not be set in the Town Hall, the council need to go out to voluntary organisations, trades unions and community groups - that was real democracy. He claimed that Labour had "forgotten what democracy looks like". In the absence of a fightback all sorts of rightwing nastiness and racism could arise.

Another speaker returned to the issue asking, "Are you considering a needs budget. It is a good propaganda tool showing what is needed and where the gaps are. Are you considering this or just administering cuts? We can't wait for the next Labour government. We need concrete exmaples of how you are going to fight."

Butt said that he was not ruling out a needs budget which would "show how much we have lost and how much we need". . Muhammed's new political advisor  he would be lobbying the Labour Party over how much cash needs to be put back into local government after the disproportionate cuts it had suffered.

On the issue of Willesden Green Library, raised by three members of the audience, Cllr Butt  said that he had met with Keep Willesden Green campaigners and had passed on their concerns to Galliford Try, planners and the Regeneration Team, and their points will be taken into consideration for the new plans being presented in December.. He said that the old Willesen Library was now being retained and this meant internal redesigns. The council were still looking at 92 private units at the back of the site and this was the only way to fund it.

He was challenged with  the alternative of a small amount of building and refurbishment and the loss of the cinema,  bookshop and car park in the current plans.   The questioner said, "It's like saying I need a new boiler so I will knock my house down! I've heard it called asset stripping."  Butt responded that a lot of the 'stuff' in the 80s building had come to the end of its natural life and the building was unfinished. The cafe and cinema  had closed as a result of not being used. "We need a mini Civic Centre in Willesden so people from this area don't have to travel all the way to Wembley and we need it an no cost to us."

On the plight of the disabled he said that he took the point about how they were being hit and that he was looking at helping them through the Council Tax Support Scheme: "If we have to lobby the government we will do so."

In answer to another questioner about the council's ambivalent attitude to free schools and academies and a possible forced academy in the borough, Butt said that they were a last resort to address the shortage of school places. He said that for free schools the council had set out criteria for partners that would keep the essential principles in terms of admissions, ethos and teachers conditions of service. He was urged to consider federation of schools and extending schools as an alternative.

Asked about the Counihan family, Muhammed Butt said that it was a difficult case. Brent had 18,000 families on the waiting list and only 900 properties available. The council hoped to provide 1,700 affordable properties by 2014. He said the only way  to tackle the problem was through regeneration and Section 106 funds  and the council needed to find developer partners. The situation would be exacerbated by the new Right to Buy scheme which would take out larger properties.

Clr Butt concluded by saying that the council had been rubbished by the press and had to admit it had got its messages wrong: "We need to get better, even if it means starting from scratch."

Pete Firm, chair of Brent TUC said that he felt the council were rolling over in front of developers. Labour seemed to be assuming it was going to win the next election, However, it should not be a matter of voting Labour because the alternatives were worse but Labour putting forward policies that people would be enthusiastic about.


Anonymous said...

What are Section 106 funds?
Section 106 of what?

Martin Francis said...

Sorry to descend into jargon. Section 106 refers to funds that developers give the council to finance infrastructure improvements when they develop an area. It can finance roads, schools, health centres etc,

From the House of Commons Library
Planning obligations – also known as section 106 agreements – were designed to tackle the problem of local planning authorities rejecting good applications because the authority would be unable to afford the infrastructure expansion needed for the project – sewers, access roads, schools or even hospitals. The developer would be willing to pay for all or part of the infrastructure expansion, so as to allow the development to go ahead.

Anonymous said...

Does Butt not know that Section 106 has been replaced by the Community Infrastructure Levy? Lower and much harder to get from developers.

Heaven help Brent if this is the level of his knowledge.

Martin R said...

Section 106 of the Local Government and Housing Act provides a mechanism whereby a developer pays the council a sum of money for the privilege of obtaining planning permission. Also 'affordable housing' can also be demanded in relation to private developments. This will soon be phased out in favour of Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL)which seems to be self explanatory.

Martin R

Anonymous said...

The affordable housing rules have been relaxed so far as to be meaningless. It's now entirely possible to build a major development with none whatsoever. CIL has so many loopholes and get out clauses that it's highly likely levels of contribution to the community will be minimal.