Questions from the Opposition and other Non Executive Members
Questions will be put to the Executive
Councillor Brown asked why the Executive considered it acceptable to charge pensioners, those on benefits and everyone else £95 to deal with the problem of rats, while spending £400,000 a year removing the bulky waste charge of just £25 which was only ever paid by those who could afford to, with pensioners and those on benefits getting it free. Councillor Powney replied that the financial position facing the Council meant that it was forced to raise charges. He added that very often the Council was called upon to deal with a rat problem when in fact it was mice and so there was also an operational reason for making the charge. Councillor Powney stated that the charge of £25 for the removal of bulky waste led to more fly tipping and so was counterproductive. Councillor Brown responded that it was a disgrace that the Executive was not committed to cleaning up the borough as evidenced by the £12m savings being made from the street cleansing and waste collection services. He again questioned how the Executive could justify charging the less well off for dealing with the removal of rats.
Councillor Lorber asked if the Executive would support the campaign to save Kensal Rise library. Councillor Powney replied that it would be wrong to speculate on the future of the library before the public consultation was completed. The Executive in April would be making a decision. Councillor Lorber referred to a document produced by consultants in 2004 advising the then Labour administration on the closure of libraries. He then referred to the refurbished libraries at Preston and Neasden which were now faced with closure. Councillor Lorber claimed that people were only talked to by the Council and were not allowed to comment. He contrasted this with the 2008/12 library strategy produced by the last administration which outlined a commitment to the library service. He added that the proposals were destroying the principle that libraries should be local facilities.
Councillor Colwill stated that he had asked for certain streets to be cleaned of the paan spitting residue only to be told that the Council had stopped using the machine that had been in operation to deal with this. He asked why this was when if anything the cleaning operation needed to be extended to street railings. Councillor Colwill also said that he had noticed many young people smoking in shisha bars which he claimed was equivalent to heavy cigarette smoking. Councillor John agreed that paan spitting was disgusting and noted that it was predominantly a male habit. She agreed it needed cleaning up and urged that people were asked to stop doing it. Regarding smoking in shisha bars, Councillor John replied that she was not aware of the degree to which it could be compared to cigarette smoking and suggested that overview and scrutiny might want to look into the issue.
Councillor Hunter stated that in the final draft of the Brent Placemaking Guide, due to be published in March, it said that it aimed to achieve a “safe, attractive, accessible and inclusive environment”. However she felt there were two sections which seemed to do the opposite. It said on page 33 that shared surfaces “embraces the principle of ambiguity by blurring the traditional division between pedestrians and vehicles”, and similarly on page 54 with reference to informal crossings. Councillor Hunter referred to the opposition from the RNIB and many other organisations to such shared spaces/informal crossings because of the dangers they posed for anyone with impaired vision. Councillor Hunter asked why these proposals had been included without any caveats or consideration of the evidence-based concerns expressed. Councillor Powney replied that the placemaking guide did indeed contain the sort of caveats referred to and mentioned the concerns expressed by groups representing people with disabilities. He explained that such an approach was a common design concept and there were examples of award winning schemes so it would be strange to exclude such approaches to street design. Councillor Hunter explained that the issue had been raised with her by a blind person. She referred to the design of Sloane Square which she felt showed an award winning scheme was not always right and expressed the hope that the Council would continue to consult over this issue.
Councillor Hirani asked if a risk assessment had been carried out on the potential need to provide additional school places for the children of families moving into the borough due to the housing benefit changes. Councillor Arnold replied that the notice of the change and its timing made it very difficult to make a meaningful projection of the potential pupil movement this might cause. She admitted to being very concerned about the issue because the proposed changes were so extreme and ill thought out. Nobody was able to predict the scale of the movement around London that the changes would cause. This would be in addition to an already existing shortage of school places. Large families would face particular issues and the fear was that Brent would become a destination borough for these families placing even more demand for school places. Councillor Hirani agreed that the proposals were ill thought out and referred to the impact they would also have on people’s ability to hold on to their jobs. He commended the work carried out by the Director of Housing and Community Care and his team in trying to prepare for the changes that were to take place.
Councillor McLennan asked if, given the imminent changes to housing benefit entitlement, details could be provided on the current number of households in Brent that would be impacted by the change and whether a cost impact assessment had been carried out on potential numbers moving into the borough from neighbouring high rental cost boroughs such as Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea. Councillor Thomas replied that the changes were likely to have a disproportionate affect on London than on areas outside London. He outlined the estimated effect but warned the situation would change over time. Councillor Thomas stated that the changes had been instigated by Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea politicians. Councillor McLennan asked to be informed of when detailed figures were known.
Councillor Al-Ebadi asked how many units of social housing would be built within the Wembley regeneration area. Councillor Crane replied that this was a matter which officers were considering and offered to supply Councillor Al-Ebadi with this information. Councillor Al-Ebadi stated that the units currently available in the area were out of the reach of and, therefore, no good to local people.
Councillor Green asked why the Executive had decided to scrap the funding for the Navrati, Eid and St Patrick’s Day festivals which were community festivals enjoyed by tens of thousands of Brent residents and organised mostly by the local community while retaining corporate events organised by the Council. Councillor Powney referred to the £37.5m savings having to be made by the Council and to the fact further savings would have to be made for the following two years. This would mean having to consult on further measures to reduce spending. In such circumstances all areas of spending had to be considered. Councillor Powney pointed out that a final decision had yet to be made on the festivals programme. Councillor Green submitted that the Council was safeguarding the events it organised at the expense of those organised by the local community.
Councillor Allie referred to repeated requests to the housing service for a list of the housing associations who have provided the Tenants Services Authority (TSA) with their local standard plans. He asked if the failure of the housing service to provide this information was symptomatic of the administration’s failure to protect the housing rights and housing voice of residents of housing associations in Brent. Councillor Thomas replied that the TSA was to be abolished and therefore the focus had changed and there would be different requirements. There would be a move to greater self regulation by housing associations and a requirement for them to submit returns. Tenant representation at board level would ensure that tenants had a say within the new arrangements. Councillor Allie stated that the TSA still existed and that until it was abolished it continued to hold a regulatory role and local standard plans needed to be submitted. The least the housing service could do was to ask which housing associations had submitted their plans.
Councillor Mashari asked if, in light of the Government’s devastating 28% cuts to local government which made it impossible for the Council to continue to provide all of its current services, would the Executive consider implementing formal mechanisms to allow for a structured and active approach to engaging with the voluntary and private sectors in order to facilitate the successful take-over of certain services. Councillor Butt replied that the Council was working with the voluntary sector to see what could be supported in light of the Council having to make such cuts. There were already volunteers working in some sectors to support local services. Councillor Butt referred to Local Enterprise Partnerships that were being created to play a central role in determining local economic priorities and undertaking activities to drive economic growth and the creation of local jobs. He was also looking forward to what the forthcoming Localism Bill would have to help the Council in this regard. Councillor Mashari stressed her view that the Council should be willing to listen and engage with other providers to take over certain services facing closure. The administration needed to show it was trying to protect services by considering every possible alternative to closure.