Questions from the Opposition and other Non- Executive Members
Questions will be put to the Executive
Councillor Hunter referred to the Willesden Green week of action which had started that day. She stated that she had received the final programme of events only that morning. She expressed her frustration that one of the lessons from the previous Church End week of action had not been learnt which was to keep residents and councillors fully involved during the preparations for such a week. The week represented a major investment of time and money by the Council and partner agencies and she asked what steps were being taken to evaluate what is achieved during the week so that improvements could be made for future such weeks. Councillor Denselow replied that the weeks of action were designed to ensure there was a joined up approach to the delivery of services to local areas. He stated that the Council was getting better at organising them but acknowledged that the points were well made by Councillor Hunter and stated that he was open to ideas on how to improve the initiative, including being able to internally communicate with members better without setting the agenda too rigidly. Councillor Hunter responded that the true test as to whether the weeks were worthwhile would be to see if they led to long term change in the cleanliness and environment of the local streets. Despite requesting it she had not seen a detailed evaluation of the Harlesden week. She reiterated the importance of reviewing the project so that lessons could be learnt and stated that too often the Council failed to provide feedback to the local residents in these situations. Councillor Hunter acknowledged that not all activities could be measured but a lot could be so that lessons could be learnt.
Councillor Daly asked if it was agreed that it was a disgrace that children arrived at school hungry and that as the Government seemed incapable of tackling the cost of living crisis the Council should take the lead by extending eligibility for free school meals. Councillor Pavey replied that the Government was overseeing a return to Dickensian levels of poverty. He referred to a 300% increase in food bank usage with one quarter of the cases as a direct result of the Government’s welfare reforms. He referred to increasing child poverty and children attending school not having eaten breakfast. He agreed that extending free school meals was an excellent initiative, with the current eligibility being limited. He confirmed that the Council was actively exploring the feasibility of extending free school meals to every primary school child in Brent. Implementation would involve support from the schools and public health service and would be staggered over a period of time. Councillor Daly responded by sharing some of her experiences as a health visitor working with families in recent weeks. She had met 14 year olds who could only have school meals 2 weeks out of 4 because their parents could not afford them and she saw the situation getting worse. She felt the Council could not stand by and see this happen.
Councillor Cheese asked if it was agreed that the policy of increasing parking permit charges, visitor parking charges and other fees and charges did nothing to help the hard pressed residents of the borough with the cost of living. Councillor J Moher replied by reminding the meeting of the changes agreed in October that reduced parking charges. He also referred to the RingGo system that allowed for payment of parking charges by telephone, the take up of which had already exceeded expectations. He could not see how this amounted to increasing the charges. Councillor Cheese responded by stating that, thanks to the policies of the present Government, inflation was reducing, the cost of mortgages remained low, Council Tax had been frozen and income tax reduced for low and middle earners which was in contrast to the Council increasing its charges. He felt residents deserved better than having to pay more for worse services.
Councillor Krupa Sheth asked if it was agreed that the plan to introduce licensing of private sector landlords would lead to better management and a rise in the standard of housing for young people across the borough. Councillor McClennan replied that she had been appalled by the standard and quality of some housing in the borough which was principally occupied by younger people paying high levels of rent. She stated that in essence introducing licensing to the private sector which comprised 32% of all housing stock in Brent would lead to improvements. This was important for the Council because it did not have sufficient stock of its own to house people. Councillor Sheth thanked the lead member for her reply.
Councillor Lorber asked if it was recognised how let down some parts of the community felt by the Council withdrawing its support for some cultural events and festivals. He asked if it was agreed that the Council’s limited budget was better spent on providing support to community organised events and not put towards the Council providing poorly organised events with massive associated overheads. Councillor Butt replied by saying he did not agree with Councillor Lorber. At a time when the Council was facing unprecedented cuts the Council was working with community organisations that were well versed in setting up and organising events and festivals. He referred to recently organised celebrations and festivals which had been undertaken without the direct support of the Council. However, the Council would continue working with the organisations to help them tap into other funding streams. Councillor Lorber responded by asking if things were so tough, how spending £98k on the opening party for the civic centre which it was estimated attracted 5,000 people was justified when, with no Council support the Hindu community organised the celebration of Navratri with an event that attracted 30,000 people. He asked that the Council reconsider how it spends its festival budget.
Councillor Choudhary asked what the Council was doing to reduce gang crime, especially knife crime across Brent. Councillor Choudry replied that overall crime figures for Brent had dropped with 30% less crime recorded than at the same time the previous year. He stated that work was continuing on dealing with serious crime in partnership with other agencies and the local community to reduce levels further. Councillor Choudry referred to the Partnership and Place Overview and Scrutiny Committee task group report on gang crime and to the fact that this work had been verified by the Home Office who were pleased to see the progress the Council was making. Councillor Choudhary thanked the lead member for his reply.
Councillor Hopkins asked if it was considered acceptable that 5 months after moving into the civic centre it was still difficult for customers and councillors to get through to officers on the telephone, with staff not using the technology properly and reception in the building very poor. Councillor Butt replied that the move into the civic centre had taken a long time to complete and there had been significant investment in technology. Such change always encountered teething problems with some having now been resolved. Call waiting times had been reduced, staff had been trained and the mobile technology allowed them to take calls wherever they were located. He submitted the system was improving the way the Council worked. Councillor Hopkins agreed it was important to invest in the correct technology but referred to personal experience of trying 20 times to get through the automated switchboard to speak to an officer whose name was not recognised. The impact was that when people did get through they were angry and frustrated. Councillor Hopkins re-iterated that staff were not redirecting their calls properly. She emphasised the importance of getting the basics right and the entitlement of local residents to a basic level of service. The Mayor added that he recognised some of the points being made and stated that officers were working to resolve the issues.
Councillor Oladapo asked what provision was included in the Council’s new public realm contract for education and outreach to demonstrate to residents the actions being taken in this area to help clean the streets. Councillor Mashari replied that education and outreach formed a central part of the contract with lots of measures included to encourage and help residents recycle and reduce fly tipping. Crucial to this was encouraging behavioural changes which required a programme of sustained educational and outreach initiatives. Officers had visited properties in Harlesden and Stonebridge in an effort to help reduce waste tonnage and part of the new contract was for thirty roadshows and an additional ten meetings with resident associations and community groups. The contract included financial penalties for every percentage drop in customer satisfaction. There was also included a range of school visits to help educate young people on sustainability issues and the merits of recycling, developing the work already carried out from the Welsh Harp Education Centre. A new smart phone app was available to make reporting flytipping more accessible and faster. Finally Councillor Mashari stated that the existing outreach and educational budget would be increased from £15,000 to over £100,000 pa. Councillor Oladapo thanked the lead member for her reply.
Councillor Cummins stated that he and other councillors continued to receive complaints relating to the consequences of the Council’s decision to abolish parking scratch cards and asked if it was not time to listen to the residents affected and agree to provide new scratch cards to those, particularly the elderly, which needed them. He also asked if the database of those residents that lived within CPZs close to the CPZ boundary had been rectified so that they were not told that they were ineligible for a permit when they lived within the relevant area. In replying, Councillor J Moher asked that it be acknowledged that the new parking contract had saved the Council around £850,000. He admitted that there had been difficulties in introducing the new arrangements but these had been tackled with the contractor. He stated that the parking permit within a CPZ was a well valued system giving people the priority to park in their street. In recognition of the difficulties around removing scratch cards their use had been extended until August next year. Recognising some people found it difficult to adjust to new arrangements, work was underway on bringing out a ‘care for’ permit which would address this. Councillor Moher added that the new arrangements had been welcomed by those people who had started operating them. Councillor Cummins expressed disappointment that the contractor was blamed when it was the Council that had chosen the contractor despite warnings about the flaws in the system. He referred to a case where it took one resident five letters to get a parking issue resolved but without an apology.
Councillor HB Patel stated that the Council appeared confused when, in the knowledge that parking charges were a burning issue in the borough, it decided to increase them and by removing scratch cards to then have to extend their use because residents could not understand the new arrangements. He asked how much money the Council wasted in making decisions that then had to be corrected. Councillor J Moher replied by asking if it had not been noticed that parking charges had actually recently been reduced and so found the question confusing. Councillor H B Patel responded by referring to a past time when parking charges were even lower and so the reductions referred to by Councillor Moher were not the case when compared to an earlier time. He submitted that parking charges continued to destroy community spirit and that the concerns of residents should be listened to before decisions were made and then revised.