Friday, 13 May 2022

Brent’s Cecil Avenue Housing Scheme – Where is the Scrutiny?

 Guest post by Philip Grent in a personal capacity

If you have read my recent guest post, Deputation on Poverty Commission Housing Update – Brent finally responds! , and my Deputation to the Resources & Public Realm Scrutiny Committee meeting on 9 March, you may have noticed that something was missing. 


Information on the Committee from Brent Council’s website


The Council’s reply of 9 May completely failed to acknowledge or respond to this section of my Deputation:


‘One place where Brent could increase investment in social housing is the former Copland School site. It is vacant land, owned by the Council, which has had full planning permission to build 250 homes there for over a year.


I wrote to Cabinet members last August, when that item was on their agenda, urging them to fulfil their Poverty Commission promises, and make at least some of this development homes for social rent.


Instead, they approved a proposal which allows 152 of the new homes there to be sold privately. Of the 98 Council homes, 61 would be for shared ownership, and only 37 for London Affordable Rent.


Overall, the Wembley Housing Zone scheme claims to provide 50% “affordable housing”. But the balance of that is 54 flats at London Affordable Rent level on the Ujima House site, and only 8 of those would be family-sized homes.


There would be NO social rented homes. That’s the reality hidden in this Poverty Commission Update.


You, as a Scrutiny Committee, need to challenge that, and demand that Brent Council does better.


You can recommend that in meeting its Poverty Commission commitments, it should invest in more social rent housing as part of the New Council Homes programme, including at its Cecil Avenue development.’


The Resources & Public Realm Scrutiny Committee meeting on 9 March was the last before the 5 May Brent Council elections, and the last with Cllr. Roxanne Mashari in the Chair before she stood down as a councillor. Chairing that committee must have been a frustrating role, trying to hold Cllr. Muhammed Butt’s Cabinet ‘publicly to account’.


I could see her frustration in emails she wrote, apologising to me for the continuing delay in getting a written response to my Deputation. It should have been provided within ten working days, and was initially expected from Cllr. Ellie Southwood, Lead Member for Housing, who had been the Cabinet member presenting the Poverty Commission Update report to the Scrutiny Committee. In her final email to me, on 5 May, Roxanne wrote: ‘I would finally like to thank you for your continued engagement with policy and practice at the council and for playing an active role in holding the council to account.


From the Scrutiny section of Brent Council’s website.


I have certainly tried to hold the Council to account over the plans for Cecil Avenue in its Wembley Housing Zone. My initial approaches to Cabinet members from August 2021 got no response. I tried using a Public Question at last November’s Full Council meeting to get a proper explanation over why 152 of the 250 homes on a Council housing development should be for private sale, and only 37 at affordable rent for people on the Council’s waiting list, but without success. 


I even tried a satirical approach, using some of the Council’s own images of the three key Cabinet members involved (Cllrs. Butt, Tatler and Southwood), to show graphically how their Cecil Avenue proposals made a mockery of their “New Council Homes” promises. Still no real engagement on the issue from councillors or Council Officers!


Parody of a Brent publicity photo for its “1,000 New Council Homes” programme.


Brent’s website says that ‘Scrutiny … seeks to involve the public,’ and in January I wrote to the Chairs and Vice Chairs of both Scrutiny Committees. I sent them a copy of a guest blog I’d written about the Cecil Avenue proposals, saying ‘It looks bad. It looks wrong’, and asking: ‘Why are Brent’s Scrutiny Committees not asking for explanations?’ 


The (then) Vice Chair of the Resources and Public Realm Scrutiny Committee, Cllr. Suresh Kansagra, copied me into an email he’d sent, saying that he thought it should be an item on the agenda for their next meeting (9 February). The day before that meeting, a Scrutiny Officer at the Council wrote to me saying: ‘As the issue you have raised relates to housing, your request falls under the remit of the Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee.’ 


I queried this, and three days later she wrote again, saying: ‘It is correct that this is within the R & PR Committee remit and I am sorry for my misinterpretation of your request as a housing matter.’ Unfortunately, the agenda for the next (9 March) meeting was already full (that was the chaotic “joint” meeting which spent two hours considering Baroness Casey’s report on the Euros final at Wembley Stadium).


I had to resort to including my Cecil Avenue points in a Deputation on the Poverty Commission Update report. As you will have seen at the start of this blog article, those points were not answered. Brent’s Cabinet and Senior Council Officers do not want their Wembley Housing Zone proposals to be scrutinised. That makes me all the more convinced that they do need to be scrutinised, and soon!


Notice of an intended decision, posted on Brent Council’s website.


Last month I wrote a guest blog about a “hush hush” decision over the terms of a contract for the Wembley Housing Zone project. The actual decision was due to be made on 4 May (the day before a new Council was elected), but this doesn’t appear to have been confirmed yet (as of 12 May).


What has appeared, on the “contracts finder” website on 30 April is an invitation to contractors to apply to be Brent’s “Delivery Partner” for the Wembley Housing Zone development. They must do so by 31 May 2022, with the construction contract expected to begin on 28 March 2023, and be completed by 31 March 2026. The advertisement had first been put online earlier that day, but was quickly taken down and replaced. 


The only change made, as far as I could see, was that the original start date was shown as 1 April 2023. My guess is that the additional funding of £5.5m, which the GLA agreed for Brent Council’s Wembley Housing Zone housing scheme last year, is only available if work begins “on site” by 31 March 2023!


Main contract details from the official public “Contracts finder” website.


Proposed Development details from the “Contracts finder” website.


From the published details, it appears that there has been no change in the proposals for Cecil Avenue from when the Cabinet approved them in August 2021. The 39% “affordable” would be 98 homes, with only 37 at London Affordable Rent and 61 for shared ownership (or intermediate rent level, which would be unaffordable to most Brent residents in housing need). The remaining 61%, that’s 152 (with 20 3-4 bed) of the 250 homes Brent Council will be building here, would be for its “Delivery Partner” to sell privately, for profit. How can that be right?


Proper scrutiny of the proposals for Cecil Avenue is needed urgently. Can Cabinet members and Senior Officers explain in detail how their plans are justified? If not, they should be told by a Scrutiny Committee that they must do better. Why can’t all of the 3- and 4-bedroom family-sized homes be for Council tenants, as that is meant to be a high priority for Brent? Even if only 98 of the 250 can be affordable, surely they should all be for “genuinely affordable” rents, as recommended by the Brent Poverty Commission?


As Brent Council’s website clearly states, Scrutiny is there ‘to ensure that decisions are made in line with council policy and in the public interest.’ We deserve to see this work in practice!

Philip Grant.


Anonymous said...

Contract details - "Inflatable buildings"???

Well I suppose they have to do something with all the hot air that comes out of Cabinet!!!

Philip Grant said...

Now that the new Scrutiny Committees have been appointed, can we have some proper Scrutiny of Brent's Cecil Avenue housing scheme, please?