Wednesday 14 September 2022

Brent Council's Cecil Avenue Housing Scheme: Scrutiny - What Scrutiny?

 Guest post by Philip Grant in a personal capacity


The purpose of the committee, from Brent Council’s website.


In a guest post last May, I set out the efforts I’d made to get a proper explanation from the Council about why 152 of the 250 homes at the Council’s housing development on the former Copland School site in Wembley would be built for a “developer partner” to sell at a profit. And why only 37 of the remaining 98 homes (less than 15% of the site total) would be for “genuinely affordable” rent to Council tenants (with the other 61 being for shared ownership). 


I asked ‘Where is the Scrutiny?’ Proper scrutiny was needed, because all that Cabinet members and Officers would tell me was that it would not be viable to offer more affordable homes at Cecil Avenue. That answer did not appear to make sense! 


Illustration from Brent’s April 2021 Wembley Housing Zone “Soft Market Testing” exercise.


The Council already owned the site (so none of the high land costs they use to justify the “infill” schemes on existing Council estates). They already had millions in funding from the GLA for their “Wembley Housing Zone”, as well as £5.5m extra for this scheme. And they could borrow money for the construction from the Public Works Loans Board at historically low interest rates.


Of course, the Council would not let me (or any other citizen of the borough) see their “Viability” report, not even under the Freedom of Information Act, because it was “confidential”. But councillors on a Scrutiny Committee would be allowed to see it, and question the relevant Cabinet members and Council Officers about the figures; and about why Brent could not offer more affordable homes on this development for the families in housing need that they claim to be so keen to build “New Council Homes” for!


My old parody Brent publicity photo for its Cecil Avenue Council Housing scheme.


I’d been trying since a guest blog in January 2022 (“It looks bad. It looks wrong!”) to get one of Brent’s Scrutiny Committees to take a close look at the Cecil Avenue project. And I did manage to include this as part of in a deputation to the 9 March meeting of Resources and Public Realm Scrutiny Committee about the Poverty Commission Update report.


It took two months for the Council to provide a written (partial) reply to my deputation, by which time there had been local elections, and a new committee with a new Chair, Cllr. Rita Conneely. I wrote to her on 12 June, recommending that she include “Brent Council’s Cecil Avenue Housing Scheme” on her committee’s agenda for 19 July. I explained why, and said: 


‘Senior Council Officers and the Lead Member(s) involved do need to be put on the spot, to explain how they arrived at this apparent "giveaway" of much needed genuinely affordable Council homes, and if they can't give a satisfactory explanation, to come up with something better.’


Extract from minutes of the 9 March 2022 meeting of Resources & Public Realm Scrutiny Committee.


I received no reply, but after the minutes of the 9 March meeting had been published with the agenda for the committee’s 19 July meeting, I wrote to Cllr. Conneely again. I pointed out that the written response to my deputation totally ignored my points on Cecil Avenue. The claims made at the 9 March meeting about moving forward on the Poverty Commission recommendations, and ‘all homes being ring-fenced as being at affordable levels of rent’ were also false. The 2020 Poverty Commission had recommended Social Rent level, and no New Council Homes were yet being built for Social Rent!


The Social Rent recommendation from the Brent Poverty Commission Report.


On 18 July, Rita Conneely replied to me, saying: ‘Many thanks for your follow up on this. I am looking into this & seeking relevant additional information for the committee & its members.’ She referred to this, under “Matters Arising”, when those minutes were considered at the 19 July meeting, and indicated that this would be dealt with when the committee met in September. 


I was looking out for the agenda for the 6 September meeting, and when it was published there was no mention of the Council’s Cecil Avenue housing scheme on it. Worse than that, this is what the minutes of the 19 July meeting showed:


Extract from the minutes of Resources & Public Realm Scrutiny Committee meeting on 19 July.


“None”! I wrote to Cllr. Conneely on 30 August, including a transcript of what she had said at the 19 July meeting (from the webcast, beginning at 3.35 minutes into the recording):


‘And then we’re going to do “Matters Arising”. After our paper (?), so we have received …. Prior to this meeting we received a deputation from one of our residents, Mr Philip Grant, in regards to a presentation which was made to this committee in our previous municipal year, on the Poverty Commission. We’ve received some further information from our, from the Housing Department, in regards to that which the committee will be looking at in future, and we’ll be commenting on any of our further recommendations at our September meeting.’


In my email I asked that the minutes should be corrected, and also wrote:


‘An opportunity to put the decision makers "on the spot" at the 19 July meeting was missed, but I was led to believe that this would be done at your September meeting. Please let me know how, and where on the agenda, you will be doing that, so that I can request to speak on that item, if appropriate.’


I heard nothing back from the Chair of the committee, but did receive a promise from its Governance Officer (who my email had been copied to) that the minutes would be corrected. The day before the 6 September meeting, the agenda was republished. There was still no mention on it of the Cecil Avenue housing scheme, but revised minutes showed:


Extract from the revised minutes of Resources & Public Realm Scrutiny Committee’s 19 July meeting.


So what did happen on 6 September about the outstanding matters from my 9 March deputation, and especially the answers to the points I’d raised about the lack of genuinely affordable housing proposed for the Council’s Cecil Avenue development? There was no consideration by the committee, and no recommendations. This is a transcript (from the webcast, beginning at 1hour 8minutes and 25seconds into the recording) of the monologue from the Chair:


‘Next on my list – Minutes of the previous meeting. Does anybody have any challenges to the minutes of the previous meeting? [Pause – nothing heard] Lovely.


Matters Arising. I need to confirm that following a deputation that was received by this committee, historically, in the last municipal year as well actually. The deputation came from one of our residents, Mr Grant, and it was primarily regarding issues of affordability.


And I just want to flag in regard to that, as the Chair has received information which, er I’m sorry I’ve lost my …, I’ve received information which reassures us about the accuracy and the quality of the information that was presented to the Scrutiny Committee.


However, I do want to flag, a bit like my comment about acronyms earlier, affordability has a lot of different phrases now, and I think clarity in our meetings is important, both from us as councillors when we’re asking, that we’re clear what we are asking about, and that we try as best as possible to use the up-to-date and accurate terms when that information is being shared from officers.


So, we’d really, really appreciate an effort from all of us to keep meetings as clear and transparent as possible, so residents continue to be really as confident as possible in the information that is being shared. 


And again, just to reiterate that the issues of affordability in our housing stock is of serious concern to this committee, and the Community and Wellbeing Committee, and I know a lot of our residents as well. And I know the Cabinet of this Council as well. So, thank you all.’


Tucked away in that statement is the key sentence, which slammed the door shut on any consideration of the outstanding Cecil Avenue points (although that scheme is not mentioned by name):


‘I’ve received information which reassures us about the accuracy and the quality of the information that was presented to the Scrutiny Committee.’


What information was received? And what ‘information that was presented’ did it reassure “us” about? Did other committee members even see any of that information, or is “us” just the committee Chair? I think it’s fair to point out a lack of transparency here! 


And did you notice the hesitation before that sentence was read out? It certainly sounded as if Cllr. Conneely had to find the piece of paper that sentence was written down on – a carefully constructed form of words that prohibited any further discussion of this “matter arising” by committee members, without giving away any details of why that was the case. Did the Chair write those words herself (and if so who advised her on the best words to use), or was she just given the piece of paper by someone else, and told what she must say?


In my blog about this back in May, I said: ‘Brent’s Cabinet and Senior Council Officers do not want their Wembley Housing Zone proposals to be scrutinised.’ Well, they’ve got what they wanted, and Resources & Public Realm Scrutiny Committee have allowed them to get away with it.


It’s not just on this issue that Brent’s Cabinet and Senior Officers seem to control what the committee scrutinises. A report to the Full Council meeting on 11 July, headed “Resources and Public Realm Scrutiny Committee Chair’s Report”, but actually written by Council Officers and signed off by the then Assistant Chief Executive, included this section on the committee’s work plan for the year ahead:


Extract from item 11 on the Full Council meeting agenda, 11 July 2022.’


‘Scrutiny is the mechanism by which the Cabinet is held publicly to account.’ But if Brent’s Cabinet is telling the Resources & Public Realm Scrutiny Committee what subjects it can look at, those words are meaningless. 


Scrutiny – What Scrutiny?


Philip Grant.


Anonymous said...

The London Borough of Bent. Will no one be allowed to save us from them?

Philip Grant said...


This is the text of an email I've sent this evening to Cllr. Rita Conneely, the Chair of Brent's Resources and Public Realm Scrutiny Committee, offering her a "right of reply" to my article above:-

'Dear Councillor Conneely,

You probably guessed, from my Freedom of Information Act request on 7 September, that I was very disappointed by the way in which the "matters arising" from my 9 March deputation to Resources & Public Realm Scrutiny Committee was handled at your meeting on 6 September.

I've had a guest blog published on "Wembley Matters" today which sets out my concerns over this, and about the state of Scrutiny in Brent, which you may wish to read:

The article mentions you by name, and includes transcripts of what you said at the 19 July and 6 September meetings. If you would like to exercise a public "right of reply" to anything in my article, you are welcome to do so. You can either put your reply in a comment below my article, or, if you would prefer, write a "guest post" of your own, and send it to Martin, the editor, to whom I am copying this email.

As I've said in my article, I think the way that the points I'd tried to get scrutinised over the Council's Cecil Avenue development were "swept under the carpet" was a travesty of the duty of transparency.

Yet, in your comments to the committee after doing so you talked about being 'as clear and transparent as possible', and the need for residents to be 'as confident as possible' in the work of your Committee. There is certainly room for improvement on that, and until I can see that improvement, my confidence is very low.

I was hoping for, and still hope for, better. Best wishes,

Philip Grant.'

Philip Grant said...

I was surprised to see that Brent Council have published a copy of my "Poverty Commission Update" Deputation!

It is one of a number of documents attached to the agenda for the Full Council meeting on 21 September, under item 12 "Report from Chairs of Scrutiny Committees", and is "12.1d. Appendix 4":

Will any councillor, or anybody else, actually read it?

Even if they do, they won't be able to find the Council's (partial) written reply to it on Brent's website. But you can read that, if you want to, and consider how unsatisfactory it was, at:

Philip Grant said...


The "Report from Chairs of Scrutiny Committees" item on the agenda for the Full Council meeting on 21 September, written by a Council Officer (Director - Engagement, Strategy & Communication) NOT by the Committee Chairs, includes a report on the "matters arising" item at the Resources & Public Realm Scrutiny Committee meeting on 6 September, which I have written about in my article above.

This is Brent Council's "official" version of what happened:

'3.12. Under ‘Matters of Local Concern’, Councillor Conneely referenced a deputation received from Mr Phillip Grant at the Committee Meeting on 9 March 2022 (refer to Appendix 4). The Committee have since received information from Council departments reassuring the Committee about the quality and accuracy of the information that was presented to the Committee on 9 March 2022.

The Chair flagged that is important that the Committee and council officers are clear and transparent in their communications (e.g. not using acronyms, using up to date terminology etc) when asking for and sharing information in public meetings. This is so residents observing committee meetings can be confident in the information that is being shared.

Nevertheless, it was reiterated that issues relating to the affordability in our housing stock is a significant concern for both scrutiny committees, as well as for the Cabinet, and our residents.'

It's that form of words again! '... information from Council departments reassuring the Committee about the quality and accuracy of the information that was presented to the Committee ....' I wonder who composed them for Cllr. Conneely to read out?