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Saturday, 25 October 2014

Two British Museum Exhibitions

I heartily recommend the two exhibitions currently on at the British Museum.  Firstly their Ming exhibition, and also the exhibition on German history.  It is particularly nice to see something on German history that does not obsess over the Second World War to the exclusion of the rest of German culture. 

Friday, 24 October 2014

Waste Hierarchy and Landfill Diversion

By a somewhat circuitous route, I learn that the green waste charges are seen as possibly increasing recycling levels.  I think this unlikely.  Whatever the other merits of charging for garden waste _ and I can certainly understand the point about financial necessity _ I suspect that the new system is almost bound to lead to a reduction in measured recycling.

There are two reasons for this.  Firstly, waste that is composted (which is environmentally and financially more desirable than the Council collecting it) will not count towards a recycling target.  That is perhaps a comment on the importance of not allowing targets to overcome objectives since in that case lowering the recycling actually achieves the policy aims better.  The second is that the former Environment lead apparently expected the reduction in garden waste to be offset by an expansion in food waste collections. 

I think this reasoning is flawed.  I regretted at the time that the policy was not properly explained in the report before members or analysed by Scrutiny.  The lead member for environment at the time has now been replaced by the first ever Brent Executive member to be simply appointed without an internal Group election (a retrograde step in my view).  The previous member appear to believe in the article quoted above that only 60,000 households in Brent had a food waste collection.   In fact this has been untrue since 2012.  The food and garden waste collection that covered 60,000 households was in that year supplemented by a food waste collection to an extra 28,000 households.  This had some success, although there was a problem in take up in some areas such as Kilburn.  I understand that the Council is extending food waste collections to flats more, but the reason that this is only happening now because by definition those are the areas hardest to get to.  Again it is frustrating that the reasoning and analysis behind this policy has simply not been made public in the way it should have been. 

Another point is whether the recycling target is a bit out of date, and should be replaced by a landfill diversion target.  This accords well with waste hierarchy principles.  West London Waste Authority (WLWA) already leads on reducing wasteWLWA is now locked into a new procurement coming into force in 2016, which will eliminate almost all landfill from West London  waste disposal, so effectively Brent is already committed to this policy. 

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Progress at Harlesden Town Centre

Things have settled down a little following the switchover in traffic directions in Harlesden Town Centre.  I know that there are still some grumbles about loading, rubbish collections and confused travellers, but I would suggest waiting a bit longer for the system to bed down before condemning it.   Firstly, it is still very much under way.  The area in front of Harlesden Methodist Church is currently blocked off for works, and a good deal of pavement remains to be done.  I don't think it is really fair to judge the scheme until it is physically complete.

The loading arrangements, I expect shopkeepers will get in hand as they adjust to the new system.  Similarly, as people get more used to the location of new bus stops and so on, there will be less muddle about where to go.  I recall, the much more minor changes at the Wrottesley Road traffic lights I campaigned for took quite a while for people to get used to, but were generally welcomed eventually.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Scotland's Oil

The crash in the oil price shows how vulnerable an independent Scotland would have been if the Yessers had won the Indyref.  The sheer volatility of oil means that an independent Scotland heavily reliant on oil would find itself cutting spending dramatically in circumstances such as these.  Circumstances over which it would have not control.  That is before you worry about the longer term decline in marginal North Sea oilfields, and the effect of the "Dutch Effect" on exports when prices are high.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Asset of Community Value Status for the Former Preston Library

I was interested to see the report that a group is seeking Asset of Community Value (ACV) status for the former Preston Library.  This is the same group that previously announced they want to take the building over if it becomes vacant next year.  I blogged previously that there are extensive problems with the idea of this group taking over a taxpayer asset for a peppercorn rent, as they hope.  What surprises me is that making the building an asset of community value would make these problems worse not better.

Assets of Community Value status has two main effects.  The most important is that someone trying to sell or lease the building can be made to wait six months to allow community groups to see if they can find the funding to pay for it.  At the end of that period, the owner can either accept the bid, or sell to someone else.  The second is that the ACV status can be considered as a "material consideration" by planners considering a planning application.

Market Value?
The first of these conditions makes it basically impossible for the Council to simply transfer the building at a peppercorn rent as the Preston group hopes.  In fact, the Council as owner would be forced to put it up for any community group to make a bid.  In other words, ACV status effectively compels the Council to put it on the market.  If, say, a church were to express an interest the Council would be required to give it six months to raise the funding.  This was exactly the reason that the owner in the case of the former Kensal Rise Library could not simply lease the building to them prior to Planning permission.  It was precisely the ACV status that created the complication.

After six months it becomes more interesting.  A private owner could simply sell to who they liked at the price they liked, including a lower price if they wanted to.  The Council has a fiduciary duty to get best value for the taxpayer, as I explained here.  If it had a higher bid from another group, it might consider itself legally obliged to take it, disappointing the group that secured ACV status whilst seeking to take the building over for a peppercorn rent.

ACV and Planning
The Planning consequences of ACV status are slighter.  I suspect in both the Kensal Rise and The Queensbury cases, the campaigners involved sought it just as a way of making it harder for the owner to sell and/or develop the site.  That doesn't appear to be the aim in the Preston case.

ACV status would be a "material consideration" for planning, but that just means the Planners think about it.  They may not give it much weight.  Brent's existing policies resist loss of community space, and it was this existing policy that was given most weight in planning officer advice to the Committee in both the Kensal Rise and Queensbury cases.  In neither case, did the Council resist developing most of the site for housing.  The limits of using the planning system to block development were also exposed in the Barham Park case

I therefore find it hard to see the logic of why the campaigners to take over this building want it to have ACV status.

UPDATE

A comment has been added that this post does not give the whole picture. Could I ask the anonymous commentator to state what he thinks "could mislead"?

Monday, 20 October 2014

Physical and Other Kinds of Book Loans

A comment on this post asks about why I interested in loans outside physical libraries.  The primary reason is that a lot of the misunderstanding of Brent's Libraries Transformation Project came from the idea that cutting the number of libraries must mean a reduction in usage.  In fact, the opposite turned out to be the case. 

I think key to understanding why this is, is understanding that (1) at least in an urban authority like Brent, travelling to different libraries is actually quite easy (2) library activities such as book loans have become divorced (at least to some extent from actually physically visiting the libraries.

This is obvious when you consider a lot of online actitivities.  If you have a Brent library card you can now look books up in a catalogue, read periodicals, communicate with other library uers and boorrow ebooks without actually setting foot in a library.

However, my post centred on book loans, so lets look at those specifically.

Ebooks, a small but fast growing sector (94% in the last half year) can be totally divorced from a physical visit to a library, as the commentator recognises.

Home Library services were an area we chose to prioritise during the Transformation.  That was a choice based on protecting vulnerable people.  There is no statutory duty to do that. Bristol has been reported as considering closing that service altogether.  Brent went the opposite way, and has massively increased usage.  This is not only not linked to having physical libraries, but pushing resources towards maintaining buildings inevitably means cuts elsewhere, and cuts to the home library service would be one politically easier way to achieve them. 

Outreach Services: I have seen some very snooty comments about outreach services as no more than a "book swop".  In fact, they can be a very valued part of the service.  I think of Brent examples such as at Preston primary school, St Raphael's Childrens Centre or the outreach activities at Kilburn Library during its refurbishment.  Again, Brent chose to emphasise this service and saw usage shoot up as a consequence.  This was a choice that would probably not have happened had Brent chosen to pour its resources into buildings.

Online Renewals:  Online renewals I would accept have a relation to physical loans, although I think it is a fairly loose one.  Nonetheless, making online renewals as easy as possible is important to making book lending easier for the users, which I think should be a central aim for all services.

Phone Renewals: Again these are loosely related to physical loans from buildings, although I suspect they often cannibalise online renewals to some extent.

My overall point is that concentrating on buildings rather than services is the wrong set of priorities.  It is, however, the line that most authorities are taking as they look for budget cuts.