19 Jan 2012

Willesden ACF: Brent Budget Presentations and Civic Centre Costs

Leader Ann John addresses the Willesden ACF, with Cllr Hirani chair (second from right) and Deputy Leader Cllr Muhammed Butt (right).

The latest of the area consultative forums took place in Willesden on 18 January 2012. The main item was presentation of the Council budget. This consisted of a double act by Leader Ann John and Deputy Cllr Muhammed Butt. Unfortunately, the attendance was poor. I counted 26 in the audience, including some ward councillors, with a few latecomers thereafter. Papers for the budget item could have been better distributed if placed alongside the agenda papers as people entered instead of tucked away on a display table.

Ann John is a formidable politician and her presentational pitch was nothing if not disarming. She spent a good while framing the cuts which her administration was implementing in terms of coalition government edicts – no surprise there, but added in a cocktail of other contextualisers, such as record high income ratio differentials nationally (neglecting to mention past Labour government policies), lamenting the prospect of multi-borough councils (along the lines of a West London Alliance, that Brent was already taking a lead on for other reasons) and the consolation of Diamond Jubilee celebrations on our doorstep in 2012 (Wembley Stadium). She has a straight-talking manner and one can easily warm to her. Somebody said to me afterwards, "How come she makes the worst decisions sound like they're so wonderful? Does anyone believe her?"

Cllr Butt, on the other hand, struck me as uncomfortable with his brief – which went into greater specifics about the figures. In this context, that's actually a compliment. I've heard him speak passionately and confidently in the previous administration, but now as a key front man he looks conflicted and nervous about what he's doing. I've not heard him speak from the heart lately, only with his calculating brain (eg. asking a question about legal licence at a key meeting in which the fate of local libraries was being sealed with his vote among others). I pity when I see politicians with a conscience risk losing it like that. I especially pity the people who have to forebear the consequences of bad decisions.

I raised a clarificatory question about the financing for the Civic Centre, which was heralded in the presentation of a revenue-raising venture. The Council's basic contention is that the co-location of 12 buildings, mostly with soon-to-expire leases, into one civic centre will cost the council less to run overall. We were told that "within 3 years it will be delivering £3.5m savings each year". However, this did not sit easily with previous assertions that the capital cost of the project would be paid back over 25 years – wouldn't these putative savings be used up in repayment of that debt, costing at least £4m year on year over 25 years? I was referred to an officer both at the meeting and invited to speak to him during the interval, which I took up. I was told that over and above these putative savings, another £3m per annum was already being offset against the cost of the debt repayment, although I couldn't be given the term of this repayment – it would have to be considerably more than 25 years. Nor could I be supplied with hard calculations since these were "confidential".

Ultimately, I don't see how we can have confidence in these savings assumptions without being able or allowed to scrutinise the devil of the details and assumptions behind them. Even if savings could have been expected through co-location, why then squander the larger part of them on repayment of a building, a large part of which is going to be allocated to private occupancy? Why not use the £20m expected to be raised through sale of the Town Hall on a more modest building? Even after such a sale, I was told, the debt will be £105m. How can the Council be counselling, and implementing, service cuts in the front line, such as local library provision, without this debt worsening the situation?

Moreover, even if were to rely upon the £3.5m per annum net savings figure from 2016 (3 years after opening), that means a net cost to us at least until then. Brent claims that it needs to make £100m of savings over the next four years – but surely this financial pressure is made worse by the civic centre costs in the interim?

Even on their own terms, the current costs associated with financing the debt is substantial (repayment plus interest). In answer to a recent FOI request about this cost, I was told:

“The actual monthly contract costs of the construction of the Civic Centre are now being published as part of Brent’s commitment to Open Data:

http://www.brent.gov.uk/opendata.nsf (a prize to anybody who can locate the relevant lines?)

The cost of financing the debt is published in the council’s Statement of Accounts as required by International Financial Reporting Standards. Prior to the introduction of International Financial Reporting Standards the interest paid on the debt was £67,496.75.” (FOI, 27 Sept 2011)

Finally, it’s hardly comparing like with like to calculate a net savings figure in 2016 using 2012 as a baseline, when Brent’s use of space would have significantly reduced by then due to redundancy and downsizing (much of which will be controversial). The correct comparison would surely be against how many of the 12 buildings would still have been required without co-locating?

At the Council Executive on Monday 16 January, two days earlier, we heard the Audit Commission present its annual audit of Brent Council. Unfortunately, we were advised, in understated yet authoritative tones, that Brent had had "difficulty" in presenting its accounts, which had been found "incomplete, inaccurate and untimely". This had necessitated payment of an additional fee of £50,000 to help bring in order. Improvements were said to be required in financial reporting and reserves. The annual Audit Commission letter is available here.

The final in the latest round of ACFs takes place in Kingsbury on 7 February 2012. (Oh dear, this date seems to be changing continually! It was advertised first as 8 February, then misadvertised for January (including by Ann John last night) and now I see it has changed yet again. At this rate, who will know?). My colleague, Martin Francis, reports on the Wembley ACF here.

PS. Here is a useful meetings diary, difficult to find on the site, but currently does not list the Kingsbury ACF at all.

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