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Saturday, 6 February 2016

Computers at Willesden Library

In Willesden Library last Sunday, I noticed that yet again the One Stop Shop computers lay unused.  If no one wants to use them for that prupose perhaps they should just be added to the general computer pool?

Friday, 5 February 2016

Spending Other Peoples' Money

Brent Council is considering on Monday a report on spending planning gain monies, which amount to £3.8 million in this financial year.  This is the funding that property developers pay the Planning Authority to offset the social impact of development.  Brent takes a very centralised approach to this, in contrast to other Boroughs that spread decision making to all the Councillors in the Council.  I am not sure that having the Cabinet nod through officers' recommendations in this way really provides the best democratic scrutiny or secures the most effective outcomes.

If you read the detail of the report there are some quite major decisions being taken.  For instance, the report states that the entire education reserve has been spent.  How much scrutiny did that get?  I am not saying that that was necessarily a bad decision given the needs of Brent, but it should surely be made in a more transparent way.  All of these themes" will have multiple projects that are being accepted or rejected.  Effectively, who is really making the decision in each case and why?  Again, the report states that Wembley gets the lion's share and Church End the least.  I suspect there are good reasons for that, but should they be a bit more obviously in the public domain?

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Borrowing and Investment at Brent Council

An interesting development in Brent Council's forthcoming budget thinking lies around borrowing.  The report suggests linking Capital borrowing to potential savings.  There have been efforts to systemise the Council's budgets in the past, notably in the Highways Asset Management Project.  A more extensive look may well be a good idea.  However, it may involve some controversial decisions.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Brent Council Tax U-turn

I have been reflecting on Cllr Muhammed Butt's Council Tax u-turn, which has seen him advocate a maximum Council Tax rise after several years of doggedly trying to freeze the Council Tax even when the Labour Group has voted the opposite. Indeed, Brent has been something of an outlier among local authorities in general, many of which have chosen a rise just short of what would trigger a referendum.  Those authorities are now financially better placed than Brent as a result. 

Objectively, there are plenty of good reasons why raising the Council Tax is sensible.  Yet these reasons have been known for a long time so they seem unlikely to have triggered the u-turn.

Paragraphs 5.10 and 5.11 of the Budget report to Council give a further explanation.  The DCLG is assuming a Council Tax rise regardless of whether local authorities make one or not, and cut central government grants on that basis.  The case for a continued freeze is therefore even weaker than last year.

All these reasons imply not only a rise this year, but also for the years thereafter.

It would be nice to think that Cllr Butt was convinced by the intellectual arguments, but I think that is fairly unlikely.  What really brings this out is that there has been no attempt to alter the Council Tax Support scheme to cushion more vulnerable residents.  This would have been possible, had the need been addressed early enough.  The fact that is was not suggests to me that Cllr Butt has simply been pushed into a Council Tax rise by the weight of opinion on the Group.  The more effective operation of Scrutiny over the past year probably has much to do with this. 

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

The Success of the Library at Willesden

It is worth thinking about what a tremendous success the new Willesden Library Centre has been so far.  Anecdotally, I know many people think the range of activities are impressive, but lets look at the numbers as well.

Here are the visits:

Here are the issues:

I have included the July figures as the new library did actually open the doors in July.  That month shows a comparatively modest change.  The following three months hsow the enormous difference a new facility can make, even though it was surrounded by building works up to the middle of September. 

The detailed figures for the graphs above are here:

Visits 2014 2015 % Growth
July               20,347               23,143 13.7%
August               19,293               31,003 60.7%
September               19,698               38,496 95.4%
October               20,254               39,492 95.0%

Issues 2014 2015 % Growth
July                 9,066               10,972 21.0%
August                 8,158               17,181 110.6%
September                 8,651               18,219 110.6%
October                 8,499               17,260 103.1%

Monday, 1 February 2016

Brent Library Privatisation Ditched

One aspect of the Brent Council Budget papers of particular interest to me is the proposed spinning off of the service into some sort of trust or possibly to an independent contractor.  I thought it unlikely that this would yield a real saving, and that it might adversely affect performance (which has been exceptionally good since the Libraries Transformation Project was implemented).

It is therefore good news that Brent Council has apparently now realised that it will not work and ditched the idea in the latest budget.

Unfortunately, the financial saving budgeted for even though the hoped for mechanism, to reduce business rates via a tax avoidance scheme, has been abandoned as unworkable.  The current Cabinet has therefore come back to the position the previous one decided on back in 2012/13.  The savings target of £160k will now have to come from the running of the service.  It would have been far better if the Cabinet had been more realistic is assessing the likelihood of the saving back in 2014. 

Still, lets also welcome that news that the original proposal to reduce the Tricycle Theatre's grant to nothing has been abandoned.  I wonder where the counterbalancing saving for that will come from?

Finally, it is good to see that the Welsh Harp Education Centre has been saved, as I hoped