Saturday 31 December 2016

Fraud & error risk in Brent Planning Application process found by auditors

An internal audit report into Brent Council's planning application process by PriceWaterhouseCooper (PcW) has given only a 'Limited Assurance' rating and identified  high and medium risks of error or fraud. The report LINK which was submitted in November 2016 will be discussed at the Audit Committee on Wednesday January 11th 7pm at Brent Civic Centre.

In the last year there have been major staff changes in the Planning Department. Both planning and regeneration come under the Strategic Director for Regeneration and Environment.  Recently the lead member for Regeneration, Growth, Employment and Skills, which also covers planning policy,  Cllr Roxanne Mashari, resigned from the Cabinet earlier this month to be replaced by Cllr Shama Tatler.

The summary states: (my emphasis highlighted in yellow)
A new management team has been in place since May 2016 and there was evidence of some improvement being made to the system of controls within the planning application assessment process. However, our review did identify significant weaknesses in the planning application review and assessment process due to issues in the design of automated and user access controls with the system used to process planning applications, Acolaid. Issues identified around the system audit trail, user access rights and system enforced controls in place mean that the system is highly susceptible to manipulation and abuse through inappropriate or fraudulent activity and action should be taken immediately by management to strengthen the controls embedded within the system. We have included on page 4 a summary process map identifying the key weaknesses within the overall control system. 

Based on the findings identified by this review we are only able to give Limited Assurance over how the risks covered by this review are being mitigated. Key findings

       The audit trail supporting the completion of key planning tasks is driven by the user selection from a drop down field that any user can amend rather than being automatically recorded based on the username within the system who has actually processed the task. The audit trail, including evidence of key approvals in the planning application process, may not accurately reflect who has actually performed the task and could be susceptible to manipulation to hide inappropriate activity. 

       The system does not enforce segregation of duties between key parts of the planning process such as the initial assessment of the application by a Planning Officer and the subsequent approval by a Planning Manager. 

       Roles and responsibilities are not fully aligned to access rights within the system. There are 9 levels of user access rights in the Acolaid system. Those responsible for granting/amending access rights were not able to define what access rights these user profiles permitted. 

       Acolaid system user access rights have not been regularly reviewed by management. There are 739 user IDs listed on the Acolaid system. 429 (58%) users had not used the system since 30/3/2016 at the time of audit (01/08/2016) consisting of staff that have left the Council or who no longer require access to Acolaid. There is no effective mechanism in place to identify users who have left the Council or no longer require access to the system and withdraw access rights accordingly. 

       There is no evidence an anti-bribery risk assessment has been completed for the Planning Department and anti-bribery awareness training has not been provided to planning staff. The Council may not be able to demonstrate that it has taken steps to prevent bribery resulting in non-compliance with the Bribery Act 2010 which could result in reputational damage and prosecution under this legislation. 

       The Council officers a pre-application advice service in relation to prospective planning applicants. Advice issued should be subject to review in advance of being issued. 7/101 (7%) of pre-applications had been processed and reviewed by the same person. 

Given the  multi-million value of planning applications in Brent and the fact that for several years now, as pointed out on this blog, major decisions are delegated to the head of planning, this is an area of obvious concern.   As with any Audit Report an action plan has been devised for each area of concern but councillors will need  to step up their scrutiny of the internal working of their own department to ensure it is fit for purpose.

An immediate question that springs to mind is whether, historically, any fraud may have taken place or major errors made?  Are any investigations planned into past planning application decisions in the light of this report? 

The report states:

Planning Officers are bound by the Royal Town Planning Institute's Code of Conduct, which includes competence, honesty and integrity as key principles. However, this does not include any specific requirements regarding anti- bribery. We reviewed the Council's Anti-Fraud and Bribery Policy and found:
   The Council has committed to maintain adequate and proportionate procedures to prevent bribery, undertake anti-bribery risk assessments and make all employees aware of their responsibilities to adhere strictly to this policy at all times; 

   An anti-bribery risk assessment for the planning applications process and anti-bribery awareness training has not been provided to staff; 

   A planning code of conduct is in place for members, however this does not include provisions relating to officers. We note that the code of conduct is currently being redrafted to include officers; and 
Planning Officers are required to flag any potential conflicts of interest in processing planning applications on an ad-hoc basis, but there is no requirement to make formal written declarations and a register of interests is not maintained.

These are the risk assessment findings:
HIGH RISK Approval of planning applications: System-audit trail and workflow
The Acolaid system does not accurately record the allocation and completion of work and the audit trail is susceptible to manipulation. In addition the system does not enforce segregation of duties for key parts of the process and system access rights do not reflect roles and responsibilities. As a result planning applications may be approved without the prerequisite review and approval in line with roles and responsibilities in place. This could result in planning applications being approved inappropriately due to fraud or error.

HIGH RISK Acolaid System use access

System access rights do not reflect current roles and responsibilities. Individuals who do not require access to the system or have left the Council have access to the system and are able to make inappropriate changes to records and standing data due to fraud or error. 

MEDIUM RISK Anti-bribery arrangements

The Council is not able to demonstrate that it has taken steps to prevent bribery resulting in non-compliance with the Bribery Act 2010 which could result in reputational damage and prosecution. Inappropriate decisions are made regarding proposed planning applications due to bribery and undue influence.

MEDIUM RISK Pre-application advice

Insufficient segregation of duties and independent review of pre-application advice may result in poor quality advice not being identified and resolved or inappropriate advice being issued based on the scope of services that can be provided at the pre-application stage.

MEDIUM RISK Management Information Control design

There is insufficient performance information available to management to facilitate effective oversight of operational performance. Operational issues are not identified and resolved in a timely manner.

Friday 30 December 2016

Greens expose unviability of London Mayor's 'viability team' on affordable housing

Sian Berry London Green Party Assembly Member has revealed that the London Mayor’s new ‘team of viability experts’ will consist of only two people, which is not enough to challenge the huge resources of developers.

The new team will be based in City Hall and will examine figures submitted by developers when they fail to meet the Mayor’s targets for affordable homes.

However, in response to a written question from Sian Berry, the Mayor has said the ‘team’ will be made up of just two people.

He also failed to give reassurances that they would be permanent staff and not on short term contracts that allow them to move back and forth between public and commercial work that could bring conflicts of interest.

Sian Berry said:
The Mayor promised a team of experts and Londoners need more than two people in these posts if the Mayor’s goal of challenging developers is to be viable. I am very concerned that two people, however talented, will be stretched beyond capacity and unable to make a real difference.

There’s already too much of a ‘revolving door’ for consultants between big developers and Council regeneration schemes, and it’s vital that these experts do not also have commercial interests while working on behalf of Londoners.

The new team needs to be expanded quickly and this should not be done by hiring in consultants on short term contracts, but by building up a dedicated and permanent expert team that works only in the public interest.
Sadiq Khan is currently consulting on draft Affordable Housing and Viability Supplementary Guidance (consultation ends 28th February 2017) LINK

It is clear from the draft extracts below that more than two experts will be required to give close attention to schemes when developers argue that they will only be 'viable' if less than 50% of housing is 'affordable'.  In truth two people would hardly be adequate for developments taking place just within Brent in Wembley Park, South Kilburn and Alperton. The problem that 'affordable' is not really affordable and Brent  regular backs down in the face of viability assessments has been covered on this blog LINK and reported on Get West London website LINK


14 The third part of the SPG (Supplementary Planning Guidance) provides detailed guidance on viability assessments, aiming to establish a standardised approach to viability. The SPG clearly sets out what information and assumptions should be included in a viability appraisal. It builds on the London Borough Development Viability Protocol and aims to provide a clear approach that can be consistently applied across London.
15 It sets out the Mayor’s expectations when it comes to the publication of viability information, requiring all information to be made public, including council and third party assessments. Applicants will have the opportunity to argue that limited elements should be kept undisclosed, but the onus is on the applicant to make this case.
16 The SPG is explicit about the Mayor’s preference for using Existing Use Value Plus as the comparable Benchmark Land Value when assessing the viability of a proposal. The premium above Existing Use Value will be based on site by site justification reflecting the circumstances of the site and landowner.


1.16 Given the strategic importance of affordable housing delivery and the significant impact of reduced levels of affordable housing on the delivery of the London Plan, the Mayor will consider directing that he is to be the Local Planning Authority for the purposes of determining an application (often referred to as a ‘call in’) or directing refusal when:
       he is not satisfied with the viability information submitted by the applicant, the assumptions that underpin the information, or the level of scrutiny given by the LPA; 

       he considers the viability information submitted may suggest a higher level of affordable housing could reasonably be provided; 

       the chance of significant contribution to affordable housing could be forgone due to other grounds and the Mayor wants to review the weight the LPA has given to competing planning objectives. 

Upcoming Pupil Census raises vital issues for schools and parents

'Against Borders for Children' will be holding a conference on January 14th to discuss the government's use of the annual school census to create a 'hostile environment' for migrants by requesting birth and nationality information from parents.

This is a particular issue for Brent schools where many children are from a migrant background and where families, after Brexit and a rise in hostility, are anxious about the future.

ABC is a coalition of parents, teachers, schools and campaigners. This is what they say about their campaign:

Our aim is to reverse the Department of Education’s (DfE) policy, effective from September 2016, to collect country of birth and nationality information on 8 million children in England in order to ‘create a hostile environment’ for migrant children in schools.

This new immigration data will be collected through the School Census and then permanently stored on the National Pupil Database. These censuses happen every year and every academic term respectively. The next happens in Spring 2017.

Providing this data is optional and does not affect school funding.

This means parents and schools can legally work together to withhold this information from DfE.
Education officials have an agreement to share the personal details of up to 1,500 schoolchildren a month with the Home Office, The Guardian reports.

The agreement, which has been in place since June 2015, is outlined in a memorandum of understanding between the Department for Education (DfE) and the Home Office. This step is a diluted form of Theresa May’s 2015 stated goal of having schools check passports before accepting new pupils and withdrawing and deprioritising places for migrant children.

As well as using the data to target individual children and families, we are concerned that members of the public, journalists, government departments, and other organisations will also be able to access schools’ immigration numbers. With a huge rise in racist hate crime since the Brexit vote, we fear for the safety of schoolchildren nationwide.
So we are organising a national boycott until the Department of Education reverses this policy and commits to safeguarding children from the stigma of anti-immigrant rhetoric and the violence that accompanies it.

Update: The campaign has won a concession to exclude collecting nationality data in the Early Years census that concerns toddlers.

What you can do:

If you are a parent, you can learn more about how to protect your child’s data.
If you are a teacher, learn how you can get involved.
For more questions, please contact us.

Supporting organisations

Over 20 organisations signed our letter to Justine Greening, calling on the Secretary of State for Education to reverse the policy and to commit to protecting all children from stigma, xenophobia, and violence. They are:

ABC have published resources for parents and schools, including model letters refusing data, on their website HERE

The human rights organisation Liberty said:
Foreign worker lists? This is a foreign children list

It bears a striking resemblance to the Home Secretary’s recent suggestion that companies will be forced to reveal the number of non-UK workers they employ which was widely decried as toxic and xenophobic.

However, the schools policy goes even further, establishing a national register of non-national children linked to their name, address, and other sensitive personal data.

This register will be accessible by multiple third parties with opaque and minimal oversight.

Border controls in our classrooms

This is a dangerous expansion of border control powers into children’s school lives. We now know that Theresa May's Home Office had plans to 'deprioritise' children of illegal immigrants on lists for school places.

With high levels of hate crime reported since the Brexit referendum, measures such as these risk victimising children in schools, a place where they should feel free and safe to learn and grow – rather than be a source of information on their parents or a target for immigration enforcement.

Already there have been reports of non-white children being asked to produce immigration documents at school.
The National Union of Teachers has published advice for members and guidelines for a school policy on the issue that can be put to governing bodies HERE 

Where to recycle your Christmas tree in Brent


Following the introduction of the 'garden tax' payment for green  waste collections there was a substantial problem of dumped Christmas trees last year on the pavement and in flower beds and shrubberies around Brent. Some hung around through the summer into autumn.

Brent Council has warned that trees dumped in this way count as fly-tipping. This is their guidance:

Christmas tree recycling

Getting rid of your real Christmas tree after the festive season has ended for another year can be a headache for some, but there are a number of ways that it can be done.

How to recycle your tree

There are three ways you can recycle your Christmas tree this winter.

Option 1

You can take it down to the Reuse and Recycling Centre in Abbey Road. Please note this will be closed on  1 January 2017.

Option 2

If you're signed up to the garden waste service you can cut your tree into pieces and place these in your green bin and we'll take it in the January collection of the garden waste service.

Option 3

You can also take your Christmas tree to a drop off point in a local park or green space in January.  Look out for this poster  to direct you to the drop off point.

Christmas Tree poster

Thursday 29 December 2016

Brent's Cricklewood PSPO against casual workers opposed by Brent's Independent councillor

Cllr Helen Carr (Independent, Mabesbury) has reiterated her opposition to the extension of a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) in Cricklewood. Consultation has closed on the extension which will go through to December 2017. The PSPO is aimed at workers waiting to be picked up for casual work. This has been a traditional picking up point for decades and formerly the casual workers were Irish, now they are also from Eastern and Central Europe.

Cllr Carr said,  "Shall we ban the homeless, as far right Hungarian, Victor Orban, has done?" LINK

She went on:
I oppose this extension, on the following grounds: This is a draconian measure not originally intended as a response to the complaints of, what I understand it, are a handful of people, albeit they have clocked up more than 400 complaints in a year. This does not mean people should not complain - I myself continually alert the Transport police to Romanian speaking beggars on the underground (a losing battle ..,) who when challenged in Romanian (as I am very capable of doing given my background), can become aggressive. But we need to ask who these young women are (invariably young women), where are they from, and why do they beg? Are they being coerced by a larger, nastier gang (invariably yes) observing them from the next carriage who will physically abuse them if they do not bring home a set amount of takings each day?  

The measure is not successful: at 7am, when I usually set out for work and pass through the Broadway, it did not take long for the small groups of men hoping to gain work, to resume unchallenged. The measure ensured they congregated elsewhere outside the zone, and in cafes etc. As I understand it from the Police themselves, this is an historical issue and originates long before the arrival of Romanians, who seems to be the new Irish in terms of being subject to prejudice and discrimination as the suppliers of no skill/low skilled casual labour. 

Not all residents support this move: I appreciate and agree with those who claim the police are unable to implement the measure - they have more serious issues to attend to. This, then, sets a very bad precedent. In the UK, policing is by consent. Servants not masters. In Romania, as in other new democracies of Eastern & Central Europe  I have lived and worked in which are only recently free of totalitarian rule, the police are a generally viewed as bodies to be feared. They operate by  a mixture of dazzle, bribery and intimidation: coercion not persuasion and consensus. We need to use these measures sparingly if the tolerance and co operation of our own police are not to be considered weaknesses and vulnerabilities to be exploited.

These are difficult and dangerous times. We need to protect those fleeing war, persecution, discrimination and deprivation. Not lock them up.
This was the Council's introduction to the consultation:
Brent Council is consulting to extend a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) from 21 December, 2016 until 20 December, 2017, which banned the practice of picking up workers for casual cash-in-hand labour within a specified area. Casual workers hired in this way are often exploited, earning less than the minimum wage and exposed to unsafe working environments.

The congregation of people looking for casual work has long been causing problems in the community. The individuals harass and intimidate passers-by and are responsible for other anti-social behaviour in the area. For a number of years there have been complaints from residents and businesses about groups of casual labourers congregating in Cricklewood Broadway and surrounding roads and car parks who harass, intimidate and enact other ASB. A side-effect of this labour market is increased rough sleeping in Brent’s parks, as well as additional levels of street drinking and a spike in offences such as criminal damage and burglary.

From 01/04/2016 to the 30/10/2016 there have been 170 calls – 13% of the calls were between 07:00 and 12:00 hours, this is the peak time for the direct ASB impact from the migrant labour market. We have issued many warnings to businesses advising that they can be fined for picking up workers, and this is reducing the number of people gathering in these areas in hopes of work. However, there is still a long way to go, and we need to keep reinforcing this message consistently to reduce the problem further.  The current PSPO expires on 20 December, 2016.

The consultation will consider whether the PSPO should be extended for a further 12 months until 20 December, 2017, to allow us to continue to penalise those who encourage casual labour markets in the area. The restricted area and prohibitions will remain the same.

Proposed area:

Shoot Up Hill junction with Walm Lane to Chichele Road to Anson Road to Heber Road to Larch Road to Mora Road to Cricklewood Broadway following the railway line to the iron bridge and south along Cricklewood Broadway to Shoot Up Hill junction with Walm Lane. This also includes all other roads, any public space, and communal areas within the mapped area,
The controversy  follows that over a report to the Council's Equality Committee on the Eastern European Community which it was alleged perpetuated negative stereotypes about the Romanian community in particular. LINK LINK

Dicing with death to recycle in Brent

Dangerous bend
Bend on exiting
I took some small redundant electrical items to the Brent Re-use and Recycling Centre this morning, the sort of job you can catch up on in the dead days between Christmas and the New Year. Such items cannot be put in the blue bins or general waste.

Little did I realise that by doing so I was taking my life in my hands. The entrance to the depot is along along a bendy road with no footway for 200 yards.  The road is used by large trucks and vans as well as cars, and pedestrians are at risk, particularly on an icy morning as it was today.

If West London Waste Authority and Brent Council are serious about encouraging recycling then a safe pedestrian entrance for residents arriving by public transport is surely essential.  The Centre is easily accessible from Stonebridge Park station or the 112 bus.

As I left the entrance road, a couple with several bags of recycling arrived, hesitated, and then decided not to risk the trip to the Centre.

I wonder how many others have done that?

Wednesday 28 December 2016

FA bids to increase the number of full-capacity events at Wembley Stadium

High rise developments around Wembley Stadium today
The Football Association is bidding to increase the number of full-capacity events at Wembley Stadium.  At present the cap is 20 per year and the FA wants to increase this by 20 to 57 per year - more than one a week.

The FA will be making a presentation at the next Brent Connects Wembley as part of the consultation process.  They have left little time for a public response as Brent Council expect the formal application to be made around January 20th 2017. There will be just 30 minutes allocated to the presentation by the FA and questions from the public.

Meanwhile little further has been heard about the FA's opposition to Quintain's  housing developments close to the stadium which they felt pose a danger to fans. LINK

Other weighty issues will also be on the agenda for the meeting including consultation on the 2017-17 council budget and  on how the Community Infrastructure Levy (CiL) should be spent.  The CiL is the contribution made by developers towards improvements in local infrastructure (roads, nurseries. schools, health facilities etc) and is subject to some controversy.  Some feel it should be spent in the immediate area of developments like South Kilburn, Wembley and Alperton while others feel its benefits should be distributed across the borough. Negotiations over the amount of CiL between the Council and developers are an issue that could benefit from deeper scrutiny.

Brent Connects is 7pm-9pm  on Wednesday January 11th at Patidar House, 22 London Road, off Wembley High Road, HA9 7EX

Click on image to enlarge

Tuesday 27 December 2016

Are our public parks in peril?

The above report by Katy Layton Jones calmly sets out the crisis that may soon engulf our public parks as local authorities budgets are stripped to the minimum and cash hungry councils are tempted to sell land off to developers. The Report merits much wider discussion

The extracts below set out the case and the full report can be viewed HERE

--> Money for the day-to-day business of maintaining public parks in decent condition has always been tight. Even during the good years described above, parks managers’ budgets were being nibbled away. But since 2010 the scale of the cuts to local authority budgets along with continuing restrictions on local authorities’ ability to raise council tax levels has had an impact on 
a different order of magnitude.
In some instances, councils have
stated explicitly that there will be no
budget for public parks from 2017 onwards. Their lack of asset value in terms of hard cash has made public parks effectively invisible in the Government’s calculation of council budgets. It is therefore unsurprising that a financial black hole has emerged which again risks consuming the cherished green spaces of countless communities around the UK.  

To some extent the impact of recent cuts has been disguised by twenty years of signifcant investment from the National Lottery. Much of the most egregious decay and dereliction was repaired, although HLF’s insistence on the need for ongoing maintenance was not always heeded. For national government, it provided a comforting sense that the matter was in
hand, complemented by a number of actions, such as the Urban White Paper (2000), its policy document Cleaner Safer Greener (2003) and the setting up of CABESpace in 2003. At a local level also, Lottery investment had created a positive mood about parks, resulting in the development of green space strategies and growth in user groups. 

However, these funds were never designed as a substitute for local authority funding, nor for national leadership, and today the provision
of even modest levels of partnership funding is beyond many local authorities. For many park managers, the time-consuming process of compiling grant applications, or
even applying for Green Flag status,
is no longer practicable. Baseline services are at risk of being withdrawn altogether, with the threat that our historic parks will once again become dirty and dangerous, and as users become discouraged, a spiral of decline will once again begin. 

The threat to public parks posed by austerity and the current political direction extends beyond direct budget cuts. Since 2010, the Government has abdicated its role in providing leadership. There has been a complete absence of strategic responsibility at Government level since the closure of CABESpace in 2011. The Design Council, which was charged with taking over CABE’s responsibilities, ignored the remit of CABESpace. The closure of CABESpace was followed in 2013 by the loss of Green Space, the charity which represented parks interests, largely due to a lack of Government support. 

Compounding the absence of national leadership, there are now question marks hanging over the future of individual local authorities. The reorganisation and merger of local authorities is currently the subject of numerous consultations across the country. Dorset is one such example, where nine authorities may be replaced by just two. While advocates of the proposal champion the potential savings to be made by combining departments and reducing personnel, such a radical reformation of management poses very real risks for public parks including the loss of local personnel; the loss of long-term management experience of specific sites; interruption to and potential loss of existing local authority funding streams; instability and disjunction in
the implementation of management strategies; and obscuring of accountability as authorities become physically distant from widely-dispersed parks and community groups. If reorganisation is designed to save costs, it is likely that non-statutory services such as parks will bear the brunt of so-called  efficiencies.



The current status quo is unsustainable and the undoing of all that has been achieved in the past twenty years should be unthinkable. Yet parks are already entering a spiral of decline and this time there will be no miraculous multi-million pound bail-out by the Lottery. We must take decisive action now to save our public parks. 

.        Make the maintenance of public parks a statutory duty for local authorities. 

.        Identify and publish baseline funding requirements for all parks. 

.        Enable local authorities to employ taxation as a mechanism for funding parks. 

.        Establish and fund a national champion body for urban parks and green space. 

.        Strengthen protection in the planning system afforded to parks as ‘Non-designated heritage assets’ or Assets of Community Value. 

.        Acknowledge the success of local authorities in managing public parks for over a century and recognise that for most parks there is no viable alternative 

.        Fund a comprehensive green space mapping project to record the extent, distribution and quality of public parks across Britain.