Monday 25 January 2016

When is a decision not a decision? Smoke and mirrors at Brent Council

Early days of the campaign to Save the Queensbury

 Guest blog by Ian Elliott
A property developer bought The Queensbury pub in Willesden Green almost four years ago and lodged a plan to build a 10 storey tower block in its place. Save The Queensbury was formed and we convinced Brent Council's planning department to reject the plans. We then represented ourselves at a five day public inquiry when the developer appealed, unsuccessfully and the Inspector spoke highly of the merits of the existing building.

From the start we believed that the building, in a conservation area, should have been protected by being added to Brent's "local list" of buildings. The problem is, we have been left completely confused as to who takes a decision as to what buildings are on the list and have now been stonewalled by decision-makers at Brent Council.

Back in 2012 we were told that there were no plans to review Brent's list, which contains buildings as diverse as the State Ballroom in Kilburn to the bandstand in Queens Park.

In June 2014 a mysterious report appear on Brent's website, rightly adding Kensal Rise library to the list but claiming that The Queensbury had been reviewed but would not be added. Naturally this was a blow so we asked for the assessment to be made public. Brent refused to publish the assessment so we complained to Brent's Chief Executive and asked for this to be looked at by a senior officer, away from those close to the decision. 

Instead we had a reply giving Brent a clean bill of health - from a manager in the same department who we wanted to be investigated as failing to consult with residents. (Bear in mind also that officers in planning have twice recommended that the pub be demolished, in spite of local opposition). Weird, eh?

Fast forward to summer 2015 and Brent consulted on a review of the local list and we, along with dozens of residents, asked for The Queensbury to be listed. Cllr Margaret McLennan, Brent Council’s lead member for housing and development, said: “This consultation is a chance for residents to have their say on the pieces of Brent’s fantastic heritage that are most important to them. I would encourage people to go online and nominate their favourite site of historical interest to be considered for inclusion on the Local List.” So we did.

We thought we were making progress when a report emerged, adding The Queensbury to the local list, later 2015. A decision was promised, in December 2015, but an email from Brent Council reveals that a decision not to proceed was apparently taken by Brent's Cabinet.

We asked for the minutes of that decision, given that it was on a Cabinet agenda for December. No response. No agenda. No minutes. Hang on.... this is getting weirder. Where's the transparency?

The Chair of planning then tells us that a "Policy Coordination Group" would a review the Cabinet decision but that's left us mystified. Of all the 30+ groups and committees listed on Brent's Democracy site, the PCG is not one. So we asked again, only to hear that the Lead Councillor (i.e. the one inviting us to participate in this democracy) will no longer comment or email us on this matter.

At the turn of 2015 we put in a Freedom of Information request to try and clear the smoke around Brent's mysterious PCG and hopefully find out precisely who took a decision not to add The Queensbury (again) and on what basis. 

In law, Brent have to respond to an FoI request, by the first week of February.

We will wait and see if we get transparency and minutes from the mystery PCG. Or at least an explanation as to why The Queensbury was not added, again. Without this, the popular and viable pub in a beautiful conservation area remains vulnerable to demolition.


Philip Grant said...

I have mentioned Brent Council's Constitution (the rules which our local Council have agreed that they will follow in carrying out their government of the borough) a number of times in comments and guest blogs over the past couple of years, but I make no apology for doing so again.

Supporters of "Save The Queensbury" may like to remind whichever officers at Brent Council they are dealing with on this matter, up to and including the Chief Executive, of the following extract from Part 2 ("Articles") of Brent's Constitution, particularly the bullet points which refer to decisions:-


1.4 The purpose of the Constitution is to:
 support the active involvement of citizens in the process of local authority
 help councillors represent their constituents more effectively;
 enable decisions to be taken efficiently and effectively;
 create a powerful and effective means of holding decision-makers to public
 ensure that no one will review or scrutinise a decision in which they were
directly involved;
 ensure that those responsible for decision making are clearly identifiable to
local people and that they explain the reasons for decisions; and
 provide a means of improving the delivery of services to the community.'

The wording of this Constitution has been agreed by Brent's Full Council, and both the Council's elected members and its Officers have a duty to abide by the rules and commitments set out in it. "Save The Queensbury" have a right to be told who made the decision not to add the building to the Local List, to have the reason for that decision explained to them, and to be able to hold the decision-maker to public account.


Nan. said...

Thank you for bringing this most worrying extract to our attention, Philip - to think the Council has so casually given us members of the public such a degree of recognition in its processes, even to the extent of our being able to identify the culprits when all goes pear -shaped.

What's the betting this is next on the list for 'amendment'?

Philip Grant said...

Dear Nan,

I believe that the purpose of the Constitution, set out above, was deliberately adopted by Brent's councillors, possibly as far back as 2002.

The worrying thing is that some leading councillors and senior Council officers choose to ignore the Council's own rules, as set out in that Constitution, and that they usually get away with it.