I left the Wembley ACF this evening feeling frustrated that a key question put by several members of the audience was not answered properly. How is the £100m civic centre being built by the Council going to be paid for?
We had just been treated to a three-personed sales pitch by Council Leader Ann John, a formidable local politician (pictured), Aktar Choudhury, Assistant Director of the project, and a representative of SKANSKA, the civic centre construction company. We were told first about the past cross-party support for the project (not including the Greens), the purported fact that a £100m loan from the Government had been secured by the Council "at no cost to us", the presumed energy excellence of the building (conveniently neglecting to mention the considerable embodied energy involved in mining raw materials, their transportation and erection), and a rather lengthy animation showing the phases of construction.
Unfortunately, the key question about funding was not properly addressed. The first questioner asked how the £100m was ultimately to be paid for if not by the Brent ratepayer? Another questioner put it to Cllr John, rhetorically, that she should "come clean" about the final bill being footed by Brent residents.
When I got a chance to address the floor, I tried to sharpen this question in order to solicit a proper response: How, even on Brent's own figures, was a saving of £4m per year from giving up the current portfolio of buildings going to meet the cost of a £100m loan today over 25 years, plus interest? I challenged the spokespeople to put their calculations in the public domain. Moreover, their latest, highly convenient assertions, flied in the face of their own specially commissioned independent business case into the costs associated with such a project. (For a precis of those conclusions see, including a catalogue of consultative misdemenaour over gaining public consent for the project.)
The commissioned report of 2003 had cost £75k and was independent, future-oriented. It said that the project could not become cost neutral for 25 years, and only then after "efficiency savings" - read, jobs cuts. The convenient assertions appear to be back-of-the envelope and in-house. They must be put in the public domain and properly scrutinised (by a Council which once invested in the ill-fated Icesave).
Even if the Civic centre project had been approved once, legitmately or illegitimately, it does not follow that it should not be revisited, or scaled down, in the current climate. Brent is the only London borough audacious enough to approve a plan to axe six of its local libraries (half of them), whilst in the same breath diegning to build a £100m behemoth that nobody but the political elite wants or think they need, and that we can ill-afford. (See Save our Six libraries campaign.)
If Cameron chooses to condemn an EU behemoth that would cost the entire UK less in proportionate terms, how could he counsel a loan to a Council at greater cost?
Miscellany: The ACF itself was without a pre-advertised on-line agenda, and no minutes of the previous meeting were available until mid-way, by which point approval of minutes had been passed and not returned to. We were also informed about proposals to make six wards into three twin-ward areas for Safer Neighbourhood Teams. I got a categorical assurance that their combined quota of PCSO's and sargeants would not be depleted (3 and 3, respectively, per ward). That's worth minuting.
PS. Interesting article criticising co-location of proposed Civic Centre with Wembley Stadium and Arena.