Published and promoted by Martin Francis on behalf of Brent Green Party and its local council candidates c/o 23 Saltcroft Close, Wembley, HA9 9JJ

14 Jul 2011

Freedom of Information Fightback against Lips-are-Sealed Back-of-Envelope Costings

Last night I attended the Willesden Area Consultative Forum to give a soapbox on the unaffordability of the civic centre proposal - hot on the heels of the Wembley ACF the previous evening. In summary, I used my three minutes to point out that:

1. LACK OF CONSULTATION. Nobody but the political elite of Brent, in past executives, wanted this glass, steel and concrete behemoth, or thought they needed it. Moreover, none of the residents had ever been asked whether they wanted it, and it wasn’t just a case of them not realising yet that they had asked for it!

2. UNAFFORDABILITY. The Council’s maths just didn’t add up: to pay back a £100m loan from the government over 25 years using £4m annual savings from vacating the pre-existing portfolio of 14 office buildings. What about the certainty of the interest on today’s loan against the uncertainty of year on year savings? We were entitled to see the evidential basis for these back-of-the-envelope in-house calculations so that we could scrutinise them. Moreover, the latest assertions contradicted the conclusions of a £75k feasibility study, commissioned by the Council in 2003, which demonstrated that the project could not become cost-neutral for 25 years, meaning it would be more expensive year on year than the status quo until then. Try telling the thousands of residents set to be deprived of half of the boroughs libraries that this project was affordable!

3. ENERGY RATING. The Council boast that all would be forgiven when the energy efficiency rating of the new building is taken into account, failed to factor in the colossal “embodied” energy required in the extraction of raw materials, manufacture of steel, then their transportation and erection. For such reason the cost to the planet of new build over retrofit is generally much greater.

Finally, I called upon the Council to put its costings and savings balance sheet into the public domain – especially since it was caught out by ill-fated investment in Icesave. I implored the audience to have in the forefront of their minds, throughout the sales pitch to follow, the question: How are we going to afford all this at the current time, and how can it be right to forgo libraries in order to do so?

Mr Choudhury attempted to address my question after his presentation alongside the Skanska contractor. Firstly, he drew an analogy with mortgages, saying how the savings from expiring leases could be used to support the project, and explained how carbon reductions could also be achieved equivalent to taking 95 cars off the road per year. Unfortunately, the mortgages analogy failed to account for the prospect of negative equity. Moreover, a paper presented to the Executive in December 2010 identified risks relating to the early surrender of leases on outlying buildings. Regarding Mahatma Gandhi House, for example, the lease is not due to expire until Sept 2016 and the paper lists: “Legacy issues: 1) dilapidations; 2) costs of potential early surrender; 3) unlikely to be able to sublet for remaining three years of lease.” (See paper 10 here.)

Second, the aforementioned feasibility study was dismissed by Mr Choudhury as “out-of-date”. However, that flied in the face of the detailed case studies, appendices and work that went into the report, ostensibly future-oriented – none of which studies have been reproduced. If the feasibility study is suddenly out-of-date, then shouldn’t the Council be asking for £75k back – for a study that it commissioned for that specific purpose. To the contrary, isn’t it more probable that the Council is out-of-date, not just with the current economic reality, which compounds the negative recommendation of the original report, but also out-of-touch with the feeling of the residents it was elected to serve?

Third, when I pressed again to see Mr Choudhury’s calculations in detail, as opposed to back-of-the-envelope, we were advised that it would be in “breach of confidentiality clauses”.

This attempt at concealment, to which some responded with gasps, must not go unchallenged or uncorrected. With this aim in mind, I have now submitted a Freedom of Information Request to the Council demanding sight of the evidential basis for these costs and savings figures. If the information is going to continue to be withheld then we must be furnished with the reason, on public interest grounds, why we cannot see the sums for an unaffordable project that nobody but the Council wants.

Other attendees, notably Graham Durham, donning a Save Our Six libraries T-shirt, added their criticisms about the monstrous expense against the backdrop of lack of consultation and lack of political accountability. Mr Durham did a good job of challenging Mr Choudhury on the presumed carbon savings. Extending the cars-off-road-equivalent analogy, Mr Durham asked, But how many more actual cars are to be put on the road through increased use by residents and employees no longer able to visit one of the fourteen offices that used to be within walking distance of them? No answer was given.

Mr Choudhury came up to me at the interval, after an admittedly testy public exchange, to thank me for the spirit in which I put my questions, and I thanked him for his attempt to answer me; albeit I remained highly dissatisfied. I believe that it is our councillors and executive who primarily need to be put on the spot, ahead of officers.

NB. The Save Our Six libraries campaign is scheduled to challenge Brent Council in the High Court next Tuesday 19 July.

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