22 Jul 2011

Wasted Authorities: Threat from Pinkham Way Waste Plan

Installation Art in Lincoln Inns Field, July 2011. (photo: S Ali)

On 21 July 2011, the local Green Parties of Enfield, Haringey and Barnet organised a public meeting to raise awareness of the threat to health, environment and well-being posed by the North London Waste Authority’s plan to build an industrial scale waste plant at Pinkham wood.

Quentin Given, Coordinator of Tottenham and Wood Green Friends of the Earth, began with an overview of the kind of things we needed to be doing to reduce the amount of waste we produced as individuals and to take greater responsibility for its destiny in society. He made several excellent points, focusing on how overconsumption was the key illness that needed to be diagnosed and how goods needed to be built to last instead of turned over to the scrap heap.

Colin Parish, a local resident and founder of The Pinkham Way Alliance, spoke from the heart about how he first got involved in the campaign, almost as an unlikely activist, let alone somebody who had ever thought about green issues in the past. He spoke of his deepening understanding of the interconnectedness of things, and in particular the impact upon the planet of so much of human activity we took for granted, but needed to abate, such as supermarket packaging. He spoke about his desire to be able to enjoy his garden, free from fly infestation that would accompany such an industrial scale waste plant in his neighbourhood, and determination to see any future grandchildren be able to do the same, and to be able to visit the Pinkham Wood site as a place of beauty and nature. He spoke about the use of lawyers in the campaign and the need to be prepared to fight in the courts, as and when necessary, at every step – because of the intolerable impact such a plant would have on air pollution and huge lorries coming in and out of the plant, serving seven London boroughs.

Darren Johnson, Green London Assembly member, commended the campaign on its recent success in getting Haringey to postpone the NLWA waste application until the NLWA plan is completed. He spoke about the basic flaws in the waste plant proposal as a method of bringing together so much waste from seven boroughs without concerted action on improving the recycling regime, by introducing organic waste collection, for example. He spoke about the need to fight at every step, how the Greens would be with them every way, and the pressure that would need to be brought to bear on City Hall and the mayor.

Quentin Given (FoE), Darren Johnson AM (Green Party), David Bennie (Chair), Colin Parish (Pinkham Way Alliance)

All the contributions were eloquent and well informed. The contributions from the floor were also to the point and often attempted to address the broader context. Anne Gray spoke about the need for legislation to make it easier for businesses to be able to recycle without prohibitive charges. Laura Davenport spoke about her incredulity that whilst seven boroughs could get together to produce a dull, lengthy waste plan, they could not yet produce a plan to implement, what would be far better, consistency of best practice in recycling streams across the boroughs.

Colin Parish struck me as quite an inspirational figure. The local community will require leaders like that to come forward, to rise to the challenge. He even quoted Churchill, with the qualification (rightly) that he didn’t agree with everything he did or said, “Don’t do your best, do what is necessary.”

Just one thought I was left was the ridiculousness of co-ordinating waste across boroughs in this way. Brent is facing its own challenges up ahead, as part of the West London Waste Authority (see my colleague, Martin Francis's excellent updates here and here). There seems to be an inbuilt assumption amongst contractors bidding for tenders that they can make good on the profit motive by economising on scale, irrespective of whether this is good for the planet. Coordination must not come at the cost of proper appraisal of how to take responsibility for our waste locally.

Haringey Green Party report on the meeting here.

20 Jul 2011

Soapbox: Unaffordability and Undesirability of £100m Brent Civic Centre

Here is a recording of the soapbox I gave at the Kingsbury and Kenton Area Consultative Forum on 19 July 2011, entitled "The unaffordability and undesirability of the Civic Centre Behemoth". On the day that the people of Brent found it necessary to take Brent Council to the High Court for library closures, I was entitled to call a spade a spade:

In reply to me, Leader Ann John said that it was unremarkable for the savings figures to change on a monthly basis and that these figures were already in the public domain. Unfortunately, this assertion contradicts the statement made by the Asst Director for the project, Aktar Choudhury on 14 July 2011 that he could not release the figures due to "confidentiality". I await the result of my FOI request, which Brent has already acknowledged receipt of. Following the three-personed sales-pitch on the Civic Centre, two out of four residents who asked questions from the floor focussed on the same concern about unaffordability of this project.

Picture of S Ali by P Murry, taken at an earlier lobby of Council Executive on 11 April 2011.

19 Jul 2011

People of Brent versus Brent Council: Save our Six Libraries

Sketch of Court 2, Royal Courts of Justice - The people of Brent versus Brent Council. (S Ali)

As significant as the goings on in Westminster on 19 July 2011 (hackgate hearings), at least for the good people of Brent, is the High Court challenge to the Council's plan to axe six local libraries in Brent - and the potential repercussions if the case is won. On the opening day of the legal challenge, the BBC reports.

In the words of the Save our Six campaign, the basis of the challenge is that: "Brent Council has closed its mind to alternatives to closure, did not assess community needs or the impact of closure properly, made significant mistakes about the facts, misunderstood its legal duty to provide a library service and acted unfairly."

After presenting a physical and vocal presence outside the entrance to the Court (some pictured below), the people of Brent packed the lower and upper public gallery of Court 2. The judge first entertained an application he had lately received to have the case adjourned, on behalf of a third party. This struck me as a desperate attempt at sabotage, which could only have helped the Council, and the judge rightly dismissed as "too late".

Counsel for the claimaint (the campaign to save the libraries) then summarised, in the first hour, the main legal arguments that she would go on to put in more detail. The contention was that "Brent had not acted lawfully, or with due regard, to its statutory duties." The main pieces of law referenced were the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 (in particular section 7): "It shall be the duty of every library authority to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof ..". Also referenced were the Equalities Act 2010 and the Childrens Acts of 1989 and 2004.

We were introduced to a compelling case that the Council, in deciding how to fulfil its duty under the 1964 Act, "had fixed on the means of fulfilling that end, without proper, open-minded consideration of the alternative options." These failures were itemised under the headings of failures of Approach - such as closing its mind to third sector collaboration - and failures of Analysis. The latter included the contentions that Brent Council had sought to reach a decision before facilitating the formation of rational and informed views; had failed to rigorously assess the needs of children; and had turned its Equalities Impact Analysis in to a piece of advocacy "rather than a genuine tool to inform the decision-making process."

The final piece of the legal challenge concerned Brent's inadequate consultation .. because "Brent closed its mind"; did not offer consultees financial alternatives; made up criteria without disclosing them to consultees; and offered no questions about what would mitigate the library closures. These charges will ring true to anybody who is familiar with Brent's attitude to consultation generally, and the libraries problem in particular. (Report of original Council decision on 11 April 2011 to decimate libraries.)

I shuffled a written note to a neighbour in the gallery concerned that Council representatives (for the defendant) appeared to her to be visibly making light, or in denial, of some of these grave criticisms. "We will prevail!" I replied.

Another resident, Andria Greaves, said to me of her local library in Tokyngton: "It's one of the very far out libraries which they think they can ignore."

Over the coming hours and days, let Brent Council's mind be focussed to its rank disdain of the people of Brent and its riding roughshod over the educational needs of some of its most vulnerable communities.

The people of Brent will not be ignored!

Brent library campaigners outside the High Court.

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.

12 Jul 2011

£100m Civic Centre Zero Cost: Go Figure

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.

Threat Level from Incapacitated Met Train: Severe

One day after the government lowered the threat level from a terrorist incident by a notch and just shy of a year before the Olympics, the risk of being held indefinitely on a standing train is still severe.

This is the sight of late morning commuters stuck between stations, after being evacuated from one Metropolitan line train to another because of a “signal failure” up ahead. The indefinite wait lasted one hour and we were instructed first to evacuate, then to hold fast, then to evacuate again, because of a Jubilee train being in the wrong place at the wrong time up ahead, blocking southbound trains on two lines.

The most worrying thing is not just the ridiculosity of the original excuse, but the complete absence of a contingency plan, delivered unambiguously and with confidence by either train driver or management. At one point we had two drivers onboard and one manager. Whilst all were apologetic, I would not have been surprised to find both drivers pulling the train in opposite directions, such was the appalling lack of a clear account about what was happening and what should be the response.

Had this incident happened underground, the wait would have been all the more intolerable. At least one passenger had a hospital appointment for her child to attend.

Had there been a genuine emergency, I can’t with any confidence say that we were in safe or competent hands. What on earth must have been going on behind the scenes? Managers being paid 100k+ a year to debate health and safety perhaps? But maybe that is assuming too much proactivity even.

Driver at one point described our delay as "hopefully enjoyable". Philosophical stoicsm on the underground no doubt - though I know he was trying his best and seemed to know no more than us.

Commuters being asked to evacuate to train behind, then change of plan then U-turn.

Previous woes reported by me: July 2010; Jun 2010.

8 Jul 2011

Brent Fightback Banner on 30 June 2011

Martin Francis and Ken Montague outside The Torch on Bridge Road, in support of strike action by teachers and public sector workers. (Picture: S Ali)

Kilburn Unemployed Workers Group KUWG

From: marie lynam []
Sent: 07 July 2011 21:16
Subject: Hello there; This is the Kilburn Unemployed Workers Group KUWG.

The KUWG will have a stand at the Kiburn Festival at Grange Park, Kilburn High Road, in front of the Tricycle, on Sunday coming, 10 July, from 1pm to around 6pm. Please visit us. Of course there will be nothing to pay.

The attached document shows you the progress of our group and our preparation for Sunday. It also shows you which of us will be looking after the Stand. If you wish to take a turn (at looking after the stand) yourself, you do not need to notify us - just come, that will be splendid.

Please note that the KUWG are holding a Public Workshop on Housing on 21 July, a Sunday, at the Forester Hall, part of the Tricycle, Kilburn High Road, from 7pm to 9pm. Hope you will attend and bring your friends as well. Free entry.

We continue to meet weekly and hope to see you one of these days.
One way or the other, we hope to see you soon

Marie Lynam for the KUWG.