Friday 31 January 2020

Brent Central CLP backs Starmer for Labour Leader and Butler for Deputy

When I was campaigning in the Barnhill by-election a resident told me confidently that Momentum had taken over Brent Council.  I chuckled.

I respect many of the local activists in Brent but they are nowhere near taking over Brent Council which remains a stronghold of Labour managerialists. Although Brent Momentum had mobilised to campaign for Gaynor Lloyd  in Barnhill the other candidate was Muhammed Butt's brother-in-law. Mo Butt joined Momentum not out of an ideological commitment to socialism but in order to keep an eye on his potential challengers. He is by no means a Momentum activist- indeed someone suggested the group rename itself Mentum in order to remove Mo.

Last night Brent CLP met to nominate their candidates for the Labour leadership and narrowly nominated Keir Starmer for the Labour leadership rather than Rebecca Long-Bailey the Momentum supported candidate, and loyally supported Brent Central MP Dawn Butler for the deputy leadership rather than Richard Burgon.

Dawn Butler made her pitch for the deputy leadership on Novara TV LINK:

Meanwhile some Green Party members were quite impressed by Rebecca Long-Bailey's pitch on climate change

Brent Cabinet fails to take scrutiny seriously

Interventions by Cllr Neil Nerva and Cllr Roxanne Mashari at the Brent Resources and Public Realm Scrutiny Committee on Wednesday centred on the failure of the Cabinet to properly consider the recommendations made by the Committee and its Task Groups.

An example was the recent Air Quality report where the Cabinet merely 'noted' its recommendations. This could mean that officers go away and make detailed action plans or just that the recommendations are vaguely borne in mind or put on the back burner.

The most telling document presented at the Committee was the 'Tracker' which records the Executive/Cabinet response to the two Scrutiny Committees' recommendations. Out of 18 reports only one - the Air Quality Report has a response, and that was just to 'note'.

Click bottom right for full page:

Cllr Mashari questioning officers on the latest Council Assets report complained that there was less information in the latest reports than previous ones that had been referred back as inadequate. She was told that information had been withheld because of 'commercial considerations.'

Cllr Nerva demanded proper responses based on good practice. The information below may help both councillors in their demand for proper process. However well Scrutiny Committees do their work they are of little use if then ignored by the Cabinet.

The Centre for Public Scrutiny publishes a Good Scrutiny Guide LINK 

1.2.1 Powers in relation to councils: in general, Scrutiny can:

  • Require information from the council. Councillors sitting on scrutiny committees have broad information access rights which means that they can and should be able to have access to information even on matters exempt for reason of commercial confidentiality, and the other exemptions found in Schedule 12A of the Local Government Act 1972. More information on information rights can be found in section 4.1 below and at section 5 of the guidance.

  • Require attendance from council officers and councillors. Members of the executive invited to attend scrutiny committee meetings, and council officers issued with similar invitations, are expected to do so. While the law does not specify the seniority of officers who should be invited to give evidence, it will usually be most appropriate for senior officers to attend, even where questions are being asked about operational delivery. More information on engagement with councils officers and executive-side councillors can be found in section 2.1 below.

  • Require that the council provides responses to scrutiny’s recommendations. Importantly, it is for scrutiny to determine the nature of the response. It is legitimate, for example, for scrutiny to require that a substantive response to each recommendation be made individually, with timescales for implementation; scrutiny can require that the executive do not respond to recommendations simply by “noting” them. More information on recommendations and impact can be found in section 5 below.  
Some councils continue to codify how and in what timescales this should be done – see pts 12 and 13 (below) in Camden Council’s constitution) . Brent does not appear to do this.
The specific functions relating to policy development and review functions of Scrutiny Committees are detailed in Article 6 in Part Two of this Constitution. In addition, the terms of reference of the Resources and Corporate Performance Scrutiny Committee are listed in Part 3.
a.     The Scrutiny Committee may develop a protocol for the production of reports.
b.    Reports from the Scrutiny Committees shall be submitted within a reasonable
time of their completion to the Proper Officer for consideration by the Cabinet and/or the Council as appropriate.
c.     The Cabinet and/or Council shall send a written response to the Scrutiny
Committee within a reasonable time of considering a report, with a copy to the Proper Officer 1.
1 Section 21 B of the Local Government Act 2000 now imposes a time of limit of two months for the Cabinet/Council to reply
a) The agenda for Cabinet meetings (including any meetings of single members and the Cabinet (Environment) Sub-Group) shall include an item entitled ‘Issues arising from scrutiny’. Reports of the Scrutiny Committees referred to the Cabinet shall be included at this point in the agenda within one month of it being submitted, unless either they have been considered in the context of the Cabinet’s deliberations on a substantive item on the agenda or the Cabinet gives reasons why they cannot be included and states when they will be considered. The Cabinet shall send a written response to the Scrutiny Committee within a reasonable time of considering a report, as set out in Rule 11 above.
It is worth remembering Barry Gardiner's warning after Labour won the overwhelming majority of Brent council seats. LINK

Brent moves forward on reviewing pension fund investments in the light of the Climate Emergency

World Economic Foundation - Top 5 global risks in terms of likelihood
Brent Scrutiny Committee made common purpose with local pressure group Brent Divest on the case for ending investment in fossil fuels and investment in renewable energy  and low carbon funds at this week's meeting.

The situation is complicated by the fact that Brent's Pension Fund investments are now largely made through the London Collective Investment Vehicle (CIV). Change will come through action by the various local authorities represented on the CIV but there are positive signs that  things are moving with the launch of a low carbon industries fund expected within the next six months. 

There are issues about whether decisions can be made on purely ethical grounds but the financial case is now clearer with both Mark Carney at the Bank of England and Schroders warning of the poor prospects of fossil fuel investments.

The overall responsibility to ensure the best return on investments has to be balanced by the risks attached to such investments and there has been considerable change over the last few years as the WEF chart shows.   The Committee ended with a recommendation that the Pension Fund Committee would do all it could around divestment and investment in low carbon funds without detriment to the financial position of the fund.

Before the meeting Simon Erskine of Brent Divest, writing to all committee members commented:

1.       To put the discussion in context, I think it is fair to say that, although the paper refers in its title to the responsible investment policy generally, in fact it is largely about the climate emergency. By this I mean that 4 of the 8 sections of the paper under the sub-title Responsible investment (paras. 3.6 to 3.13) feature climate change, carbon footprint and renewable energy. The paper is therefore talking largely about the question of investing in fossil fuels.
2.       I think it is a moot point whether this is a discussion about ethics as suggested in the Chair’s introduction to the paper in his report. Greta Thunberg has said, in relation to the climate emergency, that “our house is on fire” – and recently that has been proved to be literally true through vast areas of Australia, which follow other exceptional wildfires throughout the world, such as in California, Canada, Siberia – and even in the UK (on Saddleworth Moor). Is it an ethical question whether or not to get out the extinguisher if your house is on fire?
3.       It is not simply a case of deciding if Brent Pension Fund can afford to dispose of its fossil fuel investments. Para. 3.11 of the paper makes it clear that “Climate change has the potential to impact all asset classes over the Fund’s lifetime” and many commentators have made clear that these investments are becoming increasingly risky – not least former Bank of England governor Mark Carney. The United Nations Principles of Responsible Investment recently carried out a study ( suggesting that, for example, oil and gas stocks could lose nearly a third of their value by 2025. Para. 3.11 of the Responsible Investment paper also points out that the Council, with its advisers, is modelling various scenarios (e.g. “business as usual” compared to robust action taken internationally to counter the climate emergency). This should help clarify the risks involved – but there seems to be no evidence at all that fossil fuel investments should be retained for financial reasons – quite the contrary.
4.       Para. 3.13 of the paper comments on a £50m investment in an infrastructure fund which will include 25% renewable energy. This is warmly to be welcomed but the priority has to be to reverse the growth in CO2 emissions and an important element of this is reducing the supply of fossil fuels. 
5.       A short-term problem is that most of the Pension Fund is now invested in the London Boroughs’ investment pool, the London Collective Investment Vehicle (LCIV), which currently has no fossil free equity funds. Recently, however, I met with the Chief Executive of LCIV who said that they were launching their first fossil free fund by the end of March and that they were aware of the need to provide a range of funds for the benefit of the increasing number of London Boroughs which have committed to divest – and indeed more than half the London Boroughs have expressed an interest in fossil free funds. There is accordingly no reason why the Council should not commit to divest when suitable alternative investments are available.
6.       One point that is not mentioned in the paper is the fact that the 2018 Brent Labour manifesto committed to divest the Pension Fund and this was reiterated in the Council’s climate and ecological emergency declaration last July.
7.       I therefore very much hope that the Committee will welcome the report on the Pension Fund’s Responsible Investment Policy and encourage the Pension Fund Sub-committee to move forward, after completing its current due diligence work as described in paras. 3.11 and 3.12 of the report,  with divesting the Fund at the earliest possible opportunity in accordance with the manifesto commitment and climate and ecological emergency declaration.

Thursday 30 January 2020

Scrutiny makes recommendation that Cabinet ring fence £700k for tree replacement and planting

Scrutiny Committee last night heard a presentation about street trees from Alison Durant of the Brent Trees Group and considered a recommendation that some of the one-off £700,000 made from the sale of additional cemetery space could be used to plant and maintain trees.

The recommendation had been made in the Budget Scrutiny Report:
To acknowledge the great work of the department in achieving these savings, we believe that this money should be ring fenced to be spent on a project with an environmental theme. In line with the council’s priorities, and the fact that Brent has recently declared a climate emergency, the obvious area for spending this money would be on improving air quality. There are actions that can be undertaken by the authority to improve air quality where a one-off capital injection of £700,000 would make a significant difference. 

We believe the most notable is in the area of tree planting. The council currently does not have the revenue budget to replace all diseased or dying trees it removes (outside of those removed as part of the footway improvement plan), or to plant all of the mature trees it would like to. The presence of mature trees on our streets can help to reduce levels of carbon in the atmosphere and significantly reduce storm water runoff. We will therefore be recommending to cabinet that this pot of money is ring fenced and invested in a tree planting scheme.
Responding Cllr Margaret McLennan, deputy leader and lead member for Finance and Resources, said that it could be considered but that the first obligation of the Council was to provide hard-pressed statutory services.

In her presentation Alison Durant made the following points:

  • Brent views trees in terms of their immediate and future potential cost to the council.
  • The council fails to calculate the value of its mature street trees.
  • Brent Trees public meeting with the council was attended by 150 residents, which demonstrates the strength of feeling about the lack of care of street trees, removal of healthy street trees, lack of replacement of trees removed, and stumps being left in the place of removed trees.
  • At the public meeting we made a presentation on the value of mature trees: amenity, carbon sequestration, air quality control, air cooling, storm-water run-off, to name a few.  Small replacement trees and new small trees will provide relatively little in terms of climate change mitigation compared to large mature trees. 
  • We have a climate crisis; Brent Council has declared a “climate and ecological emergency”; Brent aspires to be the “cleanest and greenest” London borough; and yet it removes mature healthy trees that mitigate climate change in order to save money.
  • Brent Council has historically underfunded trees; the council has admitted that it removes trees because it can’t afford to maintain them and yet the environment department underspends year after year. 
  • There is a compelling case for committing additional funds to the maintenance of street trees, replacement of street trees, replacement of street trees removed historically.

Cllr Nerva pointed out that there were 12,000 tree stumps in Brent that needed to be removed. He suggested that there needed to be a more efficient use of Neighbourhood CIL money for trees perhaps led by an application from the Environment  Department and then allocated according to a set of criteria to local neighbourhoods. Cllr Tatler said she was talking  with Cllr Krupa Sheth (Lead Member for Environment) on how to approach the planting of trees.  The first priority should be to plant in the borough's areas of poor air quality.  The Environment Department was looking at methods of establishing a monetary asset value for all of the borough's trees.

Cllr Nerva is leading a Scrutiny Task Group on trees. Contact:

Scrutiny's recoemmendations will be considred by the Cabinet at its Budget meeting.