28 Jan 2012

Willesden Green Library Redevelopment

Local residents have set up a collaborative blog, Keep Willesden Green, in response to mounting concerns amongst residents about the regeneration plans for the area, in particular, redevelopment of Willesden Green Library Centre.

In a nutshell, the Council Executive of 16 January 2012 has already given the go-ahead for the modern Library Centre (fronted by the old Willesden Central Library pictured above) to be demolished and replaced by a new building, made viable only because the favoured contractor has been permitted to build residential housing on a substantial part of the land. I heard impassioned speeches against the project by local residents both at the Executive meeting and the subsequent Willesden area consultative forum of 18 January. At that forum, Leader Ann John dismissed appeals to save the historical old building, answering that it was right to have a "clear out" instead.

The decision is now to be examined by the Call-in and Overview Scrutiny Committee of Brent Council at the request of the Lib Dems. The meeting is on Wednesday February 1st (7.30pm Committee Room 1, Brent Town Hall). A detailed submission of criticisms against the original paper signed off by the Executive is available here.

Judging from past performance of this Council, the stronger the arguments the more likely they are to be ignored. Yet this submission comes from within the recall mechanism of the Council - maybe it has more leverage than impassioned speeches from members of the public?

Let's not resign ourselves to bad decision making in Brent Council. It does not have to be this way.

Willesden Green Wassail 2012: In pictures

On 22 January 2012, local residents converged on Willesden Green to perform the annual Wassail. Now in its third year of revivial in Willesden, this Anglo-Saxon tradition consists of chanting "good health" (literally "waes hael" in old English means "be well"). We were told by Rachel (pictured in green above, alongside Viv with loudhailer) that the plan was to extend the blessing beyond fruit trees to local shops on the Willesden High Road. We had our own song, and a couple of lines would be customised to take in the propreity names of the local shops and premises as we made our stops.
There was a great community spirit and as these few pictures attest, many came out in force, assisted by Transition Kensal to Kilburn in Willesden. I was particularly impressed by the political literacy of the slam poets in action (one pictured here).
Banner reads: "Willesden Green Wassail"
Gerry of Mapesbury Residents Association demonstrating a Wolf-Garten pole and basket for fruit-harvesting. I joked that he could have been the next Dyson.

Letter in Harrow Times: Holocaust Memorial Day

Letter by Shahrar Ali in Harrow Times, 26 Jan 2012 edition, "Perfect Example of Solidarity"

22 Jan 2012

Commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day in Brent: In words and in spirit

Rwandan survivor, Ndiho Sean Obedih addresses Brent Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration, Town Hall, 22 January 2012. (Chief executive, Gareth Daniel and borough Mayor, Cllr Aslam Choudry also on stage, l-r).

Performance of 'Viva La Libertad' by Kensal Rise Primary School Ethnic Contemporary Classical Orchestra.

Today's event was well attended and a huge success. I found the programme, put together by the Brent Multi Faith Forum, an excellent combination of historical overview, reflection and meditation, yet something to lift the spirit, too.

Ndiho Sean Obedih (pictured) spoke emotionally, yet eloquently, about the period in 1994 when he and his family escaped with their lives. He started by confiding in us that he hadn't "been able to open the vault of the bad memories" which he held. He punctuated his description of his eventual flight from the home where murderous gangs repeatedly visited and finally burnt to the ground with, "Had we been there [that day], I wouldn't be here today." Mr Obedih's insights were painfully authentic: "I could name a thousand names whose lives have been wasted because of hatred," and he spoke of how when first asked his tribe he did not know the answer, nor could it have been known, or important, amongst the friends he had made before then .. and still. I was impressed with Obedih's articulacy of the evil which men (and it is generally men) do: "No one is born a saviour or a murderer." He ended with a quote from Anne Frank, "I don't think of all the misery but the beauty that still remains."

The performance by the young orchestra from Kensal Rise Primary school was a fitting close to the proceeding, all of which was ably compered by Gareth Daniel. I did wonder whether somebody else might have wanted to perform that link role, but Daniel does have his own charms (describing himself self-effacingly at one point as a "front man")

We do not have enough opportunities in Brent for demonstration of community cohesion and solidarity, but at least this was one almost perfectly managed. Whilst enjoying, as a borough, the most diverse society in the country this was a perfect place to demonstrate the inclusive purpose of the Memorial Day, which has sometimes gotten unduly politicised elsewhere.

News story in Brent Times, "Hundreds pay tribute to genocide victims in Holocaust Memorial Day event in Brent", 23 Jan 2012.

19 Jan 2012

Brent Commemerates Holocaust Memorial Day: 22 Jan 2012

Brent Council's Holocaust Memorial Day Commemoration takes place at the Paul Daisley Hall, Brent Town Hall, on Sunday 22 January 2012 at 11am-12noon (following taken from Brent's invitation, also available here).

Holocaust Memorial Day is an opportunity to remember those who lost their lives during the Holocaust and those affected by genocide all over the world. It is an interfaith event which is open to all to attend. The national theme for this year is "Speak Up, Speak Out", and we will be encouraging our guests to reflect on the impact of genocide in the past and to consider how we can act to challenge acts of prejudice, persecution and genocide today.

Please find details of our programme below:

11.00am Welcome by The Worshipful Mayor of Brent, Councillor Aslam Choudry

11.05am Introduction by Gareth Daniel, Chief Executive, Brent Council

11.10am Lighting of the memorial candles by members of Brent Youth Parliament

11.15am Rwandan survivor, Ndiho Sean Obedih ‘Speaks Up’ about his experience during the Rwandan genocide

11.25am The London Cantorial Singers perform ‘Schoch'nei votei Chomer’

11.30am A performance poem by Adisa the verbaliser

11.35am A talk by Frank Dabba Smith. Ernst Leitz of Wetzlar: A German Industrialist Helps the Persecuted During the Holocaust

11.45am Memorial prayer in Hebrew and English led by Reverend Anthony Wolfson, accompanied by The London Cantorial Singers. Followed by a one minute silence

11.55am Performance of ‘Viva La Libertad’ by Kensal Rise Primary School Ethnic Contemporary Classical Orchestra

12-12.30pmTea & Coffee and viewing of exhibitions

All communities are welcome so please encourage your friends, family and colleagues to attend the service and support this very important cause.

Contact Louise Inder for more information.

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: (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.

12 Jan 2012

Letter of the Week: Anti-HS2 Campaign Will Continue

Shahrar Ali's letter in Brent Times, 12 Jan 2012 edition (p. 20), 'Our anti-HS2 rail campaign will continue'.

Transcript follows:

'Our anti-HS2 rail campaign will continue'

The notion that there may be a silver lining on the cloud hanging over residents who would be adversely affected if the HS2 high speed rail proposal got the go-ahead is a dangerous one, (‘Campaigners pledge to step up battle if HS2 goes ahead’, 5 Jan 2012).

The fact that a light rail scheme for north west London could take advantage of a new station at Old Oak Common IF HS2 went ahead is hardly cause for celebration for residents of Camden, Kilburn, Wesminster North and Kensal Green who would have to contend with a tunnel being built under their homes.

The HS2 proposal, even though given the all-clear by the government this week, would have a long way to run in terms of public consent and planning approvals. It would surely be better for proponents of light rail not to risk having their campaign recruited by proponents of an ill-conceived HS2 plan – unless, that is, they are in favour of the HS2 in its own right, too, or would wish to prioritise it?

John Whitelegg, Green Party spokesperson on sustainable development, and an expert in the transport industry has said: "The reasons for opposing the current set of proposals revolve round the flawed business case, the damage to environmentally sensitive areas, the forecast increases in car and air transport that are associated with high speed rail demand forecasts and the very poor performance of high speed rail in reducing greenhouse gas emissions."

Brent Green Party supports light rail as part of an integrated transport solution for the borough, together with better pedestrianisation and cycling routes.

However, together with a growing number of organisations and individuals campaigning nationally under the banner of STOP HS2, we continue to campaign vigorously against HS2. It would also represent a massive cost which none of us can afford.

Shahrar Ali
Green Party London Assembly candidate for Brent and Harrow
PO Box 54785
London NW9 1FL

See John Whitelegg's latest article in the Huffington Post: 'HS2 is Socially Regressive, Environmentally Damaging and Bafflingly Irrational' (11 Jan 2012)

Brent Times: Council won't rule out private parks

Martin Francis pictured and quoted in story on Brent Parks Service privitisation rumours (Brent Times, p. 2, 12 Jan 2012 edition)

8 Jan 2012

Continuing Opposition to HS2 High Speed Rail: Brent, Chilterns and Beyond

I recently visited a part of the Chiltern Hills (tree pictured), threatened with development if the HS2 high speed rail proposal went ahead. What price the despoilation of our beautiful countryside? The Green Party has been taking a lead, amongst all the political parties, in opposing this ill-conceived plan. (See STOP HS2 campaign site here and here, my report on recent public meeting in Brent, and a letter in Brent Times). The campaign against HS2 was also highly visible in the village of Great Missenden (on the approach to the Chilterns, google map below), from where these posters present the case against succinctly.
Great Missenden says Stop HS2. Why? "No business case. No environmental case. No money to pay for it."
Gt. Missenden: "The country's broke. Axe HS2"

View Larger Map

National press and media reports yesterday of Network Rail endorsement of the HS2 plan paving the way for a Government approval is cause for alarm (e.g. Channel 4), if only for fear that the government has already made up its mind and is trying to soften the blow by media management. NR were already firmly in the yes camp before the consultation concluded.

Local press reports this week, 'Brent light railway campaigners to 'step up' fight if HS2 goes ahead' (Brent Times, 8 Jan 2012) surely risk distracting attention away from the campaign to Stop HS2 proper. The planning approvals, even if an all-clear is given by the government, have a long way to run. I think it would be good for proponents of light rail not to risk having their campaign recruited by proponents of an ill-conceived HS2 plan. Any hint that there may be a silver lining on the cloud hanging over the residents of Camden, Kilburn and Kensal Green (and that's just our locality, see proposed route) because of an additional station that could be used by both schemes, is hardly going to compensate for the negative impact of having a tunnel built under them!

John Whitelegg, Green Party spokesperson on sustainable development, and an expert in the transport industry has said: "The reasons for opposing the current set of proposals revolve round the flawed business case (e.g. assuming that people do not work whilst on a train journey), the damage to environmentally sensitive areas, the forecast increases in car and air transport that are associated with high speed rail demand forecasts and the very poor performance of high speed rail in reducing greenhouse gas emissions."

Brent Green Party will continue to monitor developments in the HS2 proposal and to argue the case against.

7 Jan 2012

Public Rally: Ten Years of Guantanamo Injustice

On 7 January 2012, peace and human rights campaigners converged on Trafalgar Square to mark ten years of injustice at Guantanamo Bay. Impassioned peeches included our own Jean Lambert, Green MEP for London (pictured below). I joined the visual display by wearing an orange jump suit and black hood, as part of a line of would-be Guantanamo detainees (pictured above, from the line). We had our numbers and names read out in turn, as we passed to the front of the line, then returned to the back of the line to continue the process again, until all 171 names and numbers of the currently detained were read out in public. Though this process continued for only ten minutes, the sense of dehumanisation from under the hood was already palpable. (London Guantanamo Campaign callling for this action.)

One can hardly imagine the suffering and degradation which these unjustly detained men are having to endure, and have done for up to ten years. Moreover, British resident Shaker Aamer and former resident Ahmed Belbacha are being impeded for return to this country by the current British government.

When I sought to explain the injustice of Guantanamo to sixth formers during the Bush years, their response was one of incredulity, "Surely they must have done something wrong?" No, that's the point. No charge. No trial. Now we must persevere to fight this injustice even whilst Obama breaks his pledge to end the regime.Shahrar Ali and Jean Lambert MEP at the public rally, Trafalgar Square.

Local meeting on Guantanamo injustice: As part of Brent Stop the War meeting, Monday January 9th 7.30 pm at Brent Trades Hall, 375 High Rd, Willesden NW10 2JR. Aisha Maniar, steadfast campaigner, will speak on Ten Years of Guantánamo Bay.

More photos from the action day.

Navin Shah and Brent Library Campaign

My letter questioning Navin Shah's position on the local library closures and associated campaign to save them was published in this week's Brent Times (5 Jan 2012, Letters, p. 14). The position to which my comments were directed appeared on Mr Shah's website on 22 Nov 2011, 'Libraries are community hubs'. Another public affirmation of Mr Shah's position has since appeared here (6 Jan 2012). However, support for the local library campaign surely includes the key goal of over-turning Brent's closure decision - and the latest step in the legal battle means taking this to the Supreme Court (see my previous posting, 19 Dec 2011). Does Mr Shah support the campaign's aim to have this decision overturned? Support only for a contingency library facility, say, without proper public funding, is controversial for reasons of principle, precedent and strategy.

A transcript of my published letter appears below:

Unfortunately, Navin Shah finds himself in the awkward political situation of trying to distance himself from the decisions of his own party and to defend them at the same time in one of the boroughs which forms half of his GLA constituency.

In November 2011, writing on his website about the six library closures across Brent, Mr Shah says, “I’m not a Brent Councillor so as such have no powers or vote on Brent Council. Brent has been placed in an impossible position by the stringent cuts worth £60million next year alone imposed by the Tory and LibDem Government.”

Firstly, the position was not “impossible”. Nor was it inevitable. It was a political decision made in the Council chamber, specifically by the Brent Executive on 11 April 2011. That night we heard from dozens of petitioners. We heard from young, we heard from old – invariably eloquent and impassioned - exercising their speaking rights against the proposals, for two hours solid. Yet the Executive could not even bring themselves to raise their hands when voting for the Library Decimation Smokescreen, which they have the gall to describe as a “Transformation Project”.

Secondly, if the safeguarding of our local libraries does not count as a “frontline service”, that Mr Shah claims to want to defend, then what does? Young and old alike are being deprived of access to essential educational resources – and those harmed include some of the most disadvantaged in our community, looking to improve their lifechances. Nor is the erection of a new Brent HQ in Wembley at a cost of £102.4million worth foregoing frontline services for.

No, compare Brent Council’s reckless disregard for the People of Brent, continued in the Courts, to the commitment shown by Southwark Council. Southwark also had exactly 12 libraries, but instead of decimating them to six, they have just opened a new facility in Canada Water to bring their complement up to 13. Shame on Brent Council!

I can understand the embarrassment of Mr Shah’s political situation. But make no mistake, the decimation of our libraries is happening on his patch, and I think we do deserve a proper condemnation of it from him; instead of misplaced loyalty to his party and trying to pass the buck only to the Coalition government.

Shahrar Ali
Green Party London Assembly candidate for Brent and Harrow
PO Box 54785
London NW9 1FL

Picture top: part of Preston Library Wall of Shame on 7 Nov 2011 (since dismantled, see Wembley Matters).