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Thursday, 27 April 2017

Is Brent Council Too Bureaucratic?

Returning to a comment on this post about grants, which asks why Brent Council does not access the same funds that seem to have been tapped in the case of two of the Borough's "Community Library" projects leads me to a number of thoughts. 

The first barrier is a straightforward rules based one, that many grant giving bodies simply don't allow public bodies like Councils to bid for their grants.  The argument is that public authorities have there own methods of funding (Public Works Loan Board loans for example), and that they should use those rather than crowd out smaller voluntary groups from accessing funding that is inevitably outstripped by supply. 

As well as total prohibition, a number of grant giving bodies may impose rules that make it more difficult for a Council to get a grant.  For example, a Council may be expected to provide a higher level of match funding.  It may be required to meet criteria that sit uneasily with a public sector ethos (meeting certain religious restrictions for instance).

More interestingly perhaps is the possibility of a difference in culture, where the merits of a public sector approach have as their flipside certain demerits that make it harder to apply for grants.  What I would see as in many cases the advantages of a good public sector body can become disadvantages in this context.  Councils can be very risk averse, not moving until it is clear that a decision has been fully risk assessed, that it is legally grounded, openly debated and so on.  Councils in particular are subject to democratic oversight that should make them better decision makers, but can also slow them down and make them less flexible.  All this, depending on your viewpoint can be seen as overly bureaucratic or as properly respectful of public resources.

Voluntary groups can be more flexible in bending to a grant givers' conditions and more like social entrepreneurs in quickly targeting fleeting opportunities.  In an ideal world, I think an effective political leadership would join the advantages of both approaches.  However, it is worth remembering that the "social entrepreneur" role can also have pitfalls.  Risks can be ignored, objections unreasonably brushed aside and corners cut in ways that can lead to problems in either the short or the longer term. 

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The Rise and Fall of ALMOs

An interesting map of London ALMOs in 2009 and 2017 was published in Brent Council's last full Council agenda.  One can see at a glance that most of London had adopted ALMOs by 2009, but abandoned them later on.

The reason is money.

As I have explained before, the previous Labour government offered Councils lots of money to do up their Council housing if they agreed to an ALMO arrangement.  By 2017, this incentive had long since disappeared so the Councils just started taking the properties back in house.  It does show some of the demerits of that kind of policy making.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Harlesden Town Centre Plans

Following yesterday's post on Town Centres, I though it was worth looking at Harlesden Town Centre in particular. 

The most striking thing about the Council's latest document is that it does not seem to build on the Council's previous work effectively.  I suspect that this is linked to the turnover in Council staff being so enormous that no one linked to the extensive community discussions in 2010 is still around, so whoever wrote the new document just isn't really aware of what has gone on before.  This is a pity as it probably involves rewriting stuff that has been written before.  For example, there is no reference in the new document to the Harlesden Town Charter and its objectives.

Once again the absence of Harlesden Library and BACES from the plans are rather glaring, and the apparent unawareness of local people's long standing committment (and often real success) to improving Harlesden/Kensal Green's green spaces is striking.  The various problems caused in a busy town centre by licensing, planning, noise nuisance, shisha bars, fast food outlets and so on don't really appear. Even the traffic issues aren't really discussed. 

I also get a sense that, although the Old Oak Common area is mentioned, there is no real mechanism to think about influencing it, or indeed influencing the area around Willesden Junction

Monday, 24 April 2017

Town Centres in Brent

Tonight's Brent Council Cabinet has an interesting paper on town centres.  It touches on various themes that will be familiar to anybody who has thought about this subject _ smarter cities technologies, driverless cars, the importance of securing a town centre as a destination, the public realm and so on.

It also suggests bringing back Town Centre Managers, which Brent cut in 2011.  Once again I am struck by the change in policy not being linked to any particular rationale.  Do people on the Council disagree with the old policy, have they critiqued it or have they simply forgotten about it?

The other thing that strikes me is how this document appears to have been drawn up without thinking about libraries policy.  Following the Brent Libraries Transformation Project all Brent libraries are in Town Centres.  They are obvious places to base the Council's activities from.  The report mentions "cultural activities" as well as digital inclusion and public health.  These are all areas where it is widely claimed that libraries can and should play a leading role.

In particular, the document speaks of "work space" in terms of meanwhile uses, but omits mention of the possible use of places like Willesden Green Library Centre for this.  This is despite its previous use in the Library Lab project, the known benefits of co-location, its rather obvious provision of large numbers of computers and free WiFi, its existing use as a community hub and its established use for various training and educational activities. 

For example, the report rightly points to a worry that 67% of businesses in Wembley are not online, well above the national average.  In the days of the wireless Internet that becomes ever more important, as shoppers may use their iphone to direct their shopping.  Why not use Brent libraries for courses in how Brent shops can advertise themselves digitally?  The shops are near the library, the IT equipment is in the library and the libraries service have the connections to find instructors.  It would all fall under one of the strnads of the SCL "universal offer".

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Furness Pocket Park Tidy Up

Some one has had similar thoughts to me about tidying up the area by Furness Pocket Park.  The paving just by the edge of the park has been filled in.  Even though this all looks a bit makeshift, it should make the park easier to clean.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

South Kilburn and Falcon Public House

Monday's Cabinet meeting will see a paper on the Falcon House development which at last finds the Council actually trying to explain the benefits of redevelopment to people in Kilburn.  This is long overdue, and presumably is an adjustment to the Granville controversy. However, I am still far from clear as to what the process was by which these objectives were set