Sunday, 5 February 2023

S.O.S. goes out to Labour backbenchers as debate threatens to rock the sleepy Brent Cabinet

 Let's face it, we all know Brent Cabinet is a rubber-stamping body whose calm waters are seldom disturbed by so much as a ripple of discussion, or (Lord Preserve Us!), dissent.

All the decisions are  made at a private pre-meeting of officers and Cabinet members (See LINK) so the meeting, despite an often huge agenda, is over in half an hour or so.   The format after the preliminaries is the Lead Member, in an address often written by their officers, reads out a short introduction to an agenda item. Another Cabinet member then says a few words of praise for a great policy, hard work etc.  Cllr Butt as Chair then says what a wonderful job Labour ia doing for Brent and it is approved.

There is no debate.

The meetings are held at 10am on a Monday morning which prevents working local residents (and working backbenchers) from attending.   A move to have Cabinet meetings out in community centres to enable more public participation was quietly dropped long ago.

But word has gone out that some opposition members have dared to give notice that they are to enter the mutual grooming sanctuary and actually disagree.

Despite Labour's massive majority this has appeared to have freaked out the Labour leadership. 

I understand that  a message has gone out urgently to backbenchers from the Deputy Leader of the Council that some opposition members have requested to a speak on the Council's (fait accompli) Budget Proposal for 2023-24.  Labour Group members are asked to contact 'Mo' (Muhammed Butt, Leader of the Council) if they would like to speak to 'balance the debate and 'particularly to highlight the impact of austerity started by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats on council finances.'

Just to let you know what Mo knows!


Watch the Cabinet meeting HERE

Is this £85.6m flat purchase a 'Bargain for Brent'?

 

Developer's CGI


The two blocks ear-marked for Brent

There's an interesting article in the current New Statesman by  Will Dunn, entitled the 'The end of the housing delusion' that has many interesting insights, not least that the world's largest ratigs agency, S & P Global Ratings, has warned that property in London and the South East is over-valued by up to 50% and that there will be 'sticky, gradual decline' in prices.

The huge gap between almost static weekly pay and the value/price of homes has meant a financialised housing market creates more space for money than for people.  The decline in the value of state and private pensions means that houses are seen as retirement assets. With an expectation that the house will rise in value older people will hold on to them even when many of the rooms are empty. If prices plummet, a long over-due correction, they will hold on in the vain hope (and expectation) that that prices will rise again.

Dunn quotes Danny Dorling, 'it's such a large amount of money, that people are't in a position to accept that drop in their perceived wealth..We're just not ready for a fall that's a real fall, where it doesn't return again. And the more we don't accept the fall, the sharper we make the fall that actually occurs.'

Dorling remarks that we actually have more space than we have ever had before in the form of empty bedrooms.

So it is these potentially very difficult market conditions that Brent Council has been making acquisitions from private developers, either via Section 106 agreements or straight purchases. The latest is on the site of the former Euro-Car showrooms, bordered by Wealdstone Brook, Fifth Way and Fulton Road.  This to be approved at tomorrow's multi-agenda item Cabinet Meeting.

The aim is to buy a 999 year (less 3 days) lease on 294 of the 759 homes on the development. For this they will pay £85.6m (including fees but excluding Stamp Duty Land Tax and VAT) with expected completion in July 2026.

They say this works out at an average price of £290k per home.

The original Section106 proposal has been changed to remove Shared Ownership and change the tenure to London Affordable Rent and London Living Rent as below.


 The officers' report states:

From a housing demand perspective, whilst there is greater demand and longer
waiting times for larger family sized accommodation, the Council is always ableto allocate 1-bedroom homes. Additionally, the location of Fulton Road in
Wembley Park makes them more desirable. There are currently 799
households living in Temporary Accommodation that have a 1-bedroom need.


This is higher than 2-bedroom demand at 692 and 3-bedroom remains the
highest at 1,096. This highlights the benefit that Fulton Road as a development
will bring in meeting current housing demand.


London Living Rent (LLR) is an affordable housing product as an entry level
option to home ownership. Rents are set by the Greater London Authority (GLA) and are based on average incomes at a ward level. The intention for LLR is thatafter 10 years, the tenant would have benefited from paying a lower rent and build up savings to then purchase their home, possibly as a shared ownership product.

 

These are the latest LLR figures for Brent wards. The development is in Wembley Park ward:

 

See LINK for details on how these rents are worked out. Service charges will be in addition.
 

 The London Living Rent information for local authorities states:

Rents are below market rates so that the tenants are supported to make a regular monthly saving towards their deposit. At the end of the tenancy, they have the option to buy the accommodation they have been living in or to use their savings as a deposit on a different property of their choice.

However Brent wants to lift the commitment to enable  tenants to buy the LLR accommodation. Given what happned with 'Buy Your Own council homes this may be a good move, but may not appeal to potential tenants:

However, the GLA allows Local Authorities to request that LLR stays as rented accommodation in perpetuity meaning it would be classified as ‘Alternative Affordable Homes’. If the Council can secure permission for LLR in perpetuity, then the Council will be able to continue utilising these homes to deliver more accessible affordable housing. The Council’s intention is to lease Block D to a Council owned subsidiary to enable delivery of the 118 units as London Living Rent... The Council’s intention is to lease Block D to a Council owned subsidiary to enable delivery of the 118 units as London Living Rent.

The Council has submitted an application to the GLA for grant funding to complete the purchase of these homes. As this purchase is largely a S106 package and the overall percentage of affordable housing across the site is 40% (based on habitable rooms), then the grant available is capped at £28k per unit. Subject to GLA approval, this means that the total grant requested for this scheme is £8.2m.

 
In order to access this grant, the Council is required to enter a grant agreement with the GLA and delegated authority is bought sought for to the Corporate Director, Resident Services to enable this.

Given recent warning from the Council about some of its in-fill schmes, and proposed changes in Tenure to  meet increased costs there is reference in the report to a wider financial viability or financial risk assessment.

 

It appears ward councillors will only be consulted in the future and not before it was taken to Cabinet:

 

Consultation with Ward Members and Stakeholders

This paper will be circulated to all Ward Members.

 

 

Wednesday, 1 February 2023

Thousands of striking teachers march on Downing Street

 

 

In these dark days of Tory misrule it was exhilerating to join thousands of striking teachers and other workers on the London march to Downing Street today. Bearing in mind this was just a London march, with other marches taking place regionally, the numbers were impressive and showed the depth of feeling of union members.

Beyond the many humorous placards the mood was of steely determination. This could be a prolonged and escalating action. 


 Police blocked off Whiteall for no apparent reason when half the march was already there

 



 


Writers' Union placard





Barry Gardiner and local councillors join NEU picket line as thousands strike

 

 The NEU picket line at Wembley's Ark Academy was well supported this morning with strking teachers joined by Barry Gardiner MP, Cllrs Kathleen Fraser (Barnhill), Cllr Mili Patel (Harlesden & Kensal Green) and Iman Ahmadi Moghaddam (Wembley Park); Graham Durham (Brent Trades Council), myself (Brent Green Party and Trade Union Group) and staff from Chalkhill Primary whose school was closed by the strike.

The picket covered both entrances to the school and numbers built up throughout the early morning. There were plenty of supportive 'toots' from passing vehicles as well as ambulance and bus drivers.

 





Tuesday, 31 January 2023

Brent Green Party sends message of solidarity to striking Brent NEU members

The news that National Education Union members in Brent will be striking on February 1st is welcomed by Brent Green Party, who together with  the Green Party of England Wales as a whole, support all workers taking part in the current strike actions.


We recognise that NEU members are making just claims for pay increases that at least give some respite from the pressures of inflation which is outpacing the incomes of many except wealthy cabinet ministers and donors to Tory party coffers.


We know that the issue is not just pay, the NEU strikes and others are in defence of proper public provision in such vital areas such as education, health and transport. A viable low carbon economy can only be built on these foundations, so the strikes of the NEU members in Brent and many other trade unionists are an important part of wider struggles which are vital to us all.


SOLIDARITY TO THE NEU! SOLIDARITY TO STRIKERS!


Peter Murry, Trade Union Liaison Officer, Brent Green Party

TEACHERS IN EVERY BRENT STATE SCHOOL TO STRIKE OVER PAY TOMORROW

 

From Brent branch of the National Education Union

 

BRENT TEACHERS PLEDGE STRIKE ACTION ON PAY AND FUNDING TO SAVE SCHOOLS

 

NEU members will gather across 24 picket lines tomorrow morning from 7.30am in a bid to “save” their schools due to funding pressures and below-inflation pay.

 

Teachers will be on strike in an attempt to push the government for a fully funded pay award in line with inflation. They say that teachers in Brent are using food banks and cannot afford to live where they teach. After years of pay freezes and awards that were below inflation, and not fully funded, the NEU says Brent schools are in a sorry state and striking is a last resort.

 

Brent teachers smashed through the government thresholds placed on trade union ballots with a turnout of over 70% and a huge YES vote to strike. Many schools will be closed or partially closed tomorrow as a result.

 

All 3 Brent MPs have offered support to striking NEU members, as has the Leader of the Council, school governors and many parents.

 

Jenny Cooper, Joint District Secretary of Brent NEU and NEU national executive member has stated:

 

Teachers never take strike action lightly; we went into this job because we care about children and we certainly didn’t go into it for the pay! We feel it is our duty to do the only thing left that we can do to force the government to understand the mess our schools are in; this is another symptom of broken Britain,

 

 

Monday, 30 January 2023

1 Morland Gardens – How many more times can they get it wrong?

 Guest Post by Philip Grant in a person capacity

 

 

1 Morland Gardens, behind locked Heras fencing, 26 January 2023
 

 

It is almost three years since I first wrote about Brent Council’s plans to demolish “Altamira”, the locally listed Victorian villa at 1 Morland Gardens, and build a new adult education facility and 65 homes there. Ever since the project for an updated Brent Start college, intending to retain this beautiful heritage building, was “hijacked” at the end of 2018, to provide a large number of new Council homes, there have been mistakes and delays. Now there are more.

 

Brent Council does now have a vacant building, as the six month stay by Live-in Guardians has ended, and a barrier of Heras fencing now surrounds the outer wall of the grounds. They also have a contractor in place for their project, Hill Partnerships Ltd, under a two-stage Design & Build contract awarded last July. The first stage, a Pre-Construction Service Agreement, is underway, and as part of that the contractor submitted a Construction Logistics Plan (“the Plan”), as required by one of the conditions of the planning consent (given in October 2020!).

 

Condition 20, for a construction logistics plan, from the 1 Morland Gardens planning consent.

 

The submission of the Plan, in December 2022, was treated as a separate planning application (22/4082), but it was not advertised. I only discovered it online last week. It may not sound like a very interesting document, but when I read it, I found a number of things to comment on, pointing out in my objections how Brent, and their contractor, have got it wrong again.

 

The Plan treats the development site as a single plot of land, when it is actually two. Brent Council owns the public realm and highway outside the boundary of 1 Morland Gardens, which its proposed new building would partly cover. But it does not have any legal right to build on that piece of land. It first needs to obtain a Stopping-up Order for a section of the highway, and if it gets that order, the Council would need to appropriate that land for planning purposes. 

 

There are objections to the proposed Stopping-up Order, and Brent has yet to submit its request for an Inquiry by an independent Inspector. As far back as May 2021, Brent’s Development Management Manager confirmed that an order would need to be: ‘approved prior to any development taking place on the areas that are currently adopted highway. Until the stopping-up process has been completed under S247 of the Town & Country Act 1990, works will not be able to start on the development insofar as it affects highway land.’

 

The Plan has been submitted because it needs to be approved in writing by the Local Planning Authority (Brent Council) ‘prior to commencement of the development’. If or when the legal hurdles I’ve just mentioned have been overcome, and the contractor has a site it can start work on, there are still plenty of problems.

 

The Key Site Constraints page from the Construction Logistics Plan.

 

As this early page from the Plan shows, there are a number of “constraints” involved in developing the site. Some of these are the result of the project’s designers trying to squeeze too many new homes into an unsuitable site, and ignoring the practical “constraints”. (Does that sound familiar? Newland Court and Kilburn Square come to mind, among others!)

 

One of the “constraints” listed is the single access/egress point to the site during construction, along the residential cul-de-sac of Morland Gardens itself, which would restrict the size of delivery vehicles. The Plan deals with this by saying that deliveries by articulated lorries will be unloaded from the lay-by, or “pit-lane”, on Hillside. What lay-by? 

 

Page showing where vehicles would deliver materials to the site, from the Logistics Plan.

 

Someone involved in Brent’s project has made a major mistake here. The lay-by on Hillside for deliveries and refuse collections was part of the original plans submitted in February 2020. Those plans had to be revised, because both TfL and Brent’s Transportation Unit objected that a lay-by there would be unacceptable. Hillside is a London distributor road and bus route, with no waiting allowed at any time along its frontage with 1 Morland Gardens because of the proximity to traffic signals. A lay-by there would also be too close to the bus stop, and make the footpath too narrow for safe use by pedestrians. It appears that the contractor has been given the original, and incorrect, plans! 

 

The site diagram above shows all deliveries by “rigid vehicles” coming through a gate from Morland Gardens, and then using the existing “turning head” to drive into and then reverse, so that they can exit forwards once they have been unloaded. But that “turning head” would no longer be available for vehicles making deliveries to, or collecting refuse from, the other properties in Morland Gardens. This, again, would ‘unduly prejudice the free and safe flow of local highways’, something the Plan should not be allowed to do, if it is to be acceptable to Brent’s planners.

 

Access for deliveries to Brent’s proposed Morland Gardens development is not an unforeseen problem. I raised it in an objection comment in July 2020 (see the “Transport and Access” section of a guest post I wrote before the Planning Committee meeting), after the revised plan removing the lay-by had been submitted in June 2020. However, Planning Officers dismissed my objection by saying it would be dealt with by a condition requiring a Delivery and Servicing Management Plan for the new college (ignoring the fact that there would also be deliveries and servicing for 65 homes!).

 

The other page from the Plan which has caused me to make an objection comment is the one labelled “Proposed Sales & Marketing Area”. 

 

The “Sales & Marketing” page from the Construction Logistics Plan.

 

Sales and Marketing? The 65 homes in this planned Brent Council development are all meant to be “genuinely affordable” homes. Condition 3 of the planning consent confirms that, stating: ‘The development hereby approved shall be implemented and maintained for the lifetime of the development as 100% London Affordable Rent.’ Yet the diagram above shows a 2-bedroom, 3 person “show apartment”, available for viewing in the first section of the development (due for completion in week 64), to be used for sales and marketing purposes.

 

The 1 Morland Gardens planning application went totally against both Brent and London planning policies on the protection of heritage assets, and Planning Officers admitted that. The justification for doing so was the “public benefits” of the development, particularly the provision of 65 homes which would all be “genuinely affordable”. If some of the homes are to be sold, not let to Council tenants who urgently need them, that shifts the balance more towards scrapping the demolition, and keeping the Victorian villa as part of a more sensible scheme.

 

The Report to November 2022’s Cabinet meeting about the conversion of some LAR homes to shared ownership did include a paragraph on Morland Gardens, which suggested “value engineering” the project (without giving details). Martin published a guest post from me, including my open email to the Council Leader and Lead Member for Housing. I suggested, not for the first time, an alternative solution, but Cabinet members and Brent’s New Council Homes team seem determined to carry on with a project which is unviable and impractical.

 

How many more times can they get it wrong, before they realise they’re just throwing good money (our money!) after bad?

 

Philip Grant.

Sunday, 29 January 2023

Brent to take out 999 year lease on former ear-marked school site in Orient City

 

Potential school site enclosed in the purple line

The Cabinet has been asked to approve a 999 year lease with a pepper corn rent, on part of the former Orient City site on the Edgware Road, as part of a Section 106 agreement with the developer.

The podium site had been ear-marked for a primary free school, designed and built by the DfE, which is now not going ahead.  Financial details of the terms of the lease have been exempted from publication.

The proposal is interesting in the light of the Council's search for an alternative site for Islamia Primary and their claim that no alternative site to  the  Roe Green Strathcona site in Preston ward was available. However, this site is a long way from the present Islamia site in Queens Park and would have similar drawbacks.

It would be interesting to know what alternative proposals Brent Council has in mind for the site.

Officers' report extract:

In June 2013, the Council entered in a Section 106 Agreement (s106) which secured the transfer of land to the Council for two-form of entry (2FE) primary school with nursery provision.


The location of the school and nursery is a concrete podium (~2,700m2) to the north-west corner of the development site, alongside the boundary with Airco Close. The site is inclusive of 39 parking spaces in the basement car park along with access to the site from Airco Close and from within the Morrison’s service yard.


Following on from the planning approval, the initial proposal for the site was to develop the school site for a two-form entry school. Initial plans were to provide a Free School with the Department for Education (DfE) managing the design and build process. The School Podium was completed in 2015 and in accordance with a Technical Specification that has been submitted and approved by the Council


In May 2016, Cabinet approved the leases for Floreat Education Academies Trust (FEAT) in May 2016 to operate the proposed new school at Airco Close and an interim lease at 434 Church Lane, Kingsbury, NW9 9BD until the new school was ready.


However, since then, pupil numbers have decreased and it was confirmed there was no need for a school in this part of the borough, FEAT withdrew from operating a school in the borough and the DfE confirmed they would not be providing a new school building at Airco Close. The project to deliver a primary school on this site was aborted.


The site has remained vacant since completion in 2015 except for being used as a building compound for the residential developments which completed in 2018. The developer has undertaken protective measures as well as recent repairs to the area to ensure it is transferred to the Council in a reasonable and appropriate state.

 

There is currently no requirement to provide a Primary School in this part of the borough. Within the terms of the lease, the Council has the right to seek the landlord’s consent for other uses and such consent should not be unreasonably withheld.

The estimated costs to cover any security and maintenance of the site and the site’s contribution to the landlord’s service charge share until the site is utilised are £20k per annum and will be covered within the existing projects budget.