Thursday, 30 May 2013

Closure of Belsize Fire Station - questions the Mayor of London must answer

There will be a London Fire Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA) consultation meeting on the closure of local fire stations, including Belsize, at the London Irish Centre on Thursday 30th May 7-9pm.  You can read the Draft Fifth London Safety Plan 2013-2016 consultation document here.

Following the protest on Saturday, here are some questions for the Mayor of London:

1.     In Belsize ward the response time for a first appliance goes over the target response time by nearly three minutes – this is a ward where we have 5 residential buildings over 8 stories which is above the height that can be fought from the ground (18m), four of these are the highest in the borough.  Based on the proposed response times, it will take 7 minutes 59 seconds to arrive at the foot of the building, not the time it takes to climb the stairs and reach the front door of the flat.  We know that when it comes to tackling a fire, every second counts. Do you agree the impact on those residents could be fatal? 

2.     Do you agree the London Safety Plan failed to take into account tall buildings & high-rise, high-density residential units, listed and historic properties and critical emergency preparedness as part of the re-modelling for the draft plan?   As a result, the safety and security of residents in Camden is being compromised by the cuts being pushed through by the Tory Mayor.

3.     Belsize Fire Station serves a significant number of call outs in Westminster; whilst Clerkenwell serves more call outs in Camden than in Islington.  In reality, Camden will be losing more than just one Fire Station.  Camden is densely populated which can suffer from extremely congested roads.  These cuts will lead to longer response times from the Fire Brigade and importantly jeopardising Camden resident’s safety.  Are you aware that a fire doubles in intensity every thirty seconds?

4.     The consultation has until recently indicated that the average response time across Camden as a whole will increase by 45 seconds to 5 minutes and 26 seconds. However, recently released data shows the full extent of the impact on individual wards.  Under current arrangements, we have one ward which does not meet the LFB target response time for a first appliance.  If these proposed cuts are implemented, this will increase to seven wards.  Do you think the Mayor is putting public safety at risk?

5.     Camden has had a history of high profile incidents involving a fire response over the years, including the Kings Cross Fire, two of the 7/7 bomb sites and the Camden Lock Market.  Some buildings in the borough are of strategic importance both visually as iconic sites (such as Kings Cross, St Pancras, British Library and British Museum).  They are therefore likely to be a terrorism target, which would require a larger response than a normal fire incident.  What consideration have you given to these factors in determining the proposed station closures?

6.     In Camden we have over 5600 listed buildings, which is one of the highest numbers in London - these listed buildings are of national importance for their significant architectural and historic interest.  We also have many other unlisted buildings which are of similar construction, but of less historic or architectural importance that date back to the 19th century or earlier.  What factor if any, has this played in your determination of the proposals?

7.     Does the modelling take into account the simultaneous closure of both Belsize and Clerkenwell?  What impact do you think closing 2 stations that serve a busy and vibrant London borough will have on residents confidence? And also do you think response times are essential to saving lives?  

8.     What assurance can the fire service provide that the proposed cuts will not adversely affect the response to major incidents, given the work that has gone into implementing the recommendations following 7/7 and the King's Cross fire?

9.     What efforts have the LFB made to find the required savings from back office functions?  Here at Camden we have successfully made an efficiency saving of over £40 million over 3 years which has come from back office savings such as administration, human resources and finance, rather than frontline cuts.  Surely a saving of £25million over 2 years could be found from similar back office functions rather than affecting critical front-line services.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

2011-14 CSR: Central control continues

From the Centre for Cities blogpost on central and local government spending power relations - a reminder that local government

Last month at Holborn general Committee, former Camden Labour leader Phil Turner charted recalled  the shift from local government control over its own expenditure decisively changed during the Thatcher era, when the government looked to curtail the powers of local councils via the Rates Act.

He read out a statement (left) by the then Chief Executive to him as leader, warning of the "fundamental change in the relationship between central and local government" by the ratification of the Bill.

The current state of affairs, and how it is getting worse, is charted by the Centre for Cities' Zach Wilcox in a post last week - with this helpful graphic showing how the Chancellor's CSR has made things the central-local balance even more lopsided.

Wilcox argues:

Whitehall holds much control over local authorities’ finances, both in setting the budgets and how authorities can use their funds. On the whole, central government determines the budgets for 60 per cent of local authority spending. With the remaining 40 per cent local government raises, Whitehall sets rules and regulations around the amount raised and how it can be used (see figure below):

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

New council homes to be built in Gospel Oak

Gospel Oak councillors were at the 'Demolition Fun Day' at Bacton Low Rise on Saturday to kick off the regeneration of the area.
As part of Camden's Community Investment Programmeestate regeneration at Bacton Low Rise will be delivered in 3 phases providing a total of 290 high quality new homes - and the first new council homes to be built in Gospel Oak in a generation.

The regeneration is possible because the council is surrendering land previously occupied by the District Housing Office and some workshops to build homes.

Phase 1 begins with the demolition of the former GO District Housing Office and adjoining workshops in Vicars Rd. The demolition will take place over the summer with construction of Phase 1 new homes starting in Autumn 2013.

The residential development will contain a mix of 1 bedroom to 6 bedroom units, and will be a mix of market, social rented and intermediate (i.e. shared ownership) tenures.

Phase 1 will be the development of 63 residential units on the DHO site
Phase 2 will be development of 140 residential units on the southern part of the BLR site.
Phase 3 will the development of 87 residential units and 3 employment units on the northern part of the
BLR site.

Employment space expanded
The scheme will also provide three new high quality ground floor commercial units providing 260m2 floor space.   As part of the wider regeneration benefit to be delivered by the Bacton Low Rise project the Burmarsh workshops in Marsden Road which have been out of commission for many years are being refurbished - a total of 1300m2 13 workshop units are being brought back into use.

The new build and refurbished workshops will provide 1,500m2 of employment space, over 500m2 more than the workshops being demolished at Vicars Road (at the back of the DHO).  The existing businesses at Vicars Rd have been successfully relocated with assistance from the Council.

Full documents can be viewed here and other developments here.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

On the Mayor-making in Camden

The Camden Lib Dems have created another fuss - and a little traction in the press, even an editorial - over their demand, against convention, to nominate a councillor for this year's Mayoralty.

At 13 out of 54 councillors, the Lib Dems are the official opposition over a slightly smaller Conservative Group.

In expectation of their protests in front of the Borough's citizens this evening at the Mayor-making, it's important to set out why - in our local democracy - the Mayoralty is not shared.

As the Lib Dems full well know, the Mayor performs a constitutional role as the borough's first citizen, as well as the ceremonial role they covet.  

The Mayor, for example, has the casting vote in council meetings when Camden's £250m Budget is set.  

If Mayors were just about eating cucumber sandwiches and opening Camden-in-Bloom events they might have a point, but it seems like they intend to play games with those present by confusing the constitutional and ceremonial roles that are both present in the Mayoralty.

While we of course respect Cllr. Rea's long-service, the Liberal Democrats know the Mayoralty is crucial to the functioning of the council, the leadership of which was decided decisively by Camden voters at the last election.

They voters had their say, so perhaps the Lib Dems should respect that?

Update:  Here's the spat, as reported in the New Journal.  Most guests were a bit bemused by this. 

Dodgiest Lib Dem Bar Chart in a while

Camden New Journal blog-man Richard Osley notes the return of the 'dodgy bar chart' in Tory target Hampstead and Kilburn, in 2010 a threeway contest and on paper the most marginal seat in the country.

Of course, everyone knows (even erstwhile candidates) that the Lib Dem vote is getting punished right across north London - making them even more desperate to convince voters that they are still 'neck-and-neck.'

Here's the dodgiest bar chart I've seen in a while - doing the rounds in Swiss Cottage at the moment - with a rather skewed ratio between 30:13:10!

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Public wifi network to be established in Camden

Camden council will take a major step forward in enhancing our digital infrastructure for residents through a new deal with Arqiva to deliver public Wi-Fi to streets and open spaces across the borough.  The aim is to make Camden one of the most digitally connected places in Europe.

Camden has led a group of councils across London to secure deals that will provide a wireless network where residents, businesses and visitors will be able to access 30 minutes of free Wi-Fi services every day using registered devices such as smartphones, laptops and tablets.

Participating councils include Hackney, Islington, Brent, Merton, Haringey, Hounslow, Lambeth, Wandsworth, Hammersmith and Fulham and Barnet.

Independent of the 30 free minutes, users of the service will be able to access Camden Council’s online services free of charge 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The contract with Arqiva provides substantial financial incentives for Camden and will help to deliver the objectives of the Camden Plan to make the borough a place where "everyone has a chance to succeed and where nobody gets left behind."  

Income will be generated for the Council over the 10 year life of the contract will be used to support digital innovation in local firms and tackle digital exclusion - 14% of Camden's residents do not use the internet.

The new tech infrastucture will be a substantial boost to local businesses, driving further innovation in advertising and Camden-relevant apps. 

The service will be rolled out across the borough from 1 June 2013 to the end of 2014, covering areas which will have the highest demand first. Phase one will target the South of Camden in areas of high footfall. 

The remaining phases will cover:

*           Camden Town and Kentish Town
*           Kilburn, Finchley, Hampstead and Belsize Park

See report in today's Standard

QCCA's Older People's Lunch Club Video

Monday, 13 May 2013

Camden hosts 'hackday' to use data for public good

On Friday May 10th Camden participated in our first “hack day” with employees from Google, Barclays, EDF Energy, GlaxoSmithKline, and the Intellectual Property Office - alongside the Big Innovation Centre - all whom brought technical expertise and insights on how to make the most of Camden Council’s data to address common challenges.

Town Hall service staff and data crunchers and coders
from the private sector get down to business 
As part of our Digital Strategy (to be published shortly) Camden has been considering issues around public data – how we can use it more effectively across the council and with residents and businesses to improve transparency and performance.

The public sector holds a lot of data and this hack day explored the issues around unlocking the value it can hold by bringing together interested people to play around with large amounts of data to see what new insights they can glean or tools they can build to help make sense of the huge quantities of information that are around.

The possibilities from public data comes from New York, where the city started using data to 'predict' (a.k.a. take a best guess) where fires and crime might occur.

The event involved a day at Google Campus during which participants examined Camden Council's and other partners’ datasets, linked together different bits of data, and wrote software tools.

There were three goals:
  • Firstly, deliver some workable tools that allow the Council to make a more efficient use of its data;
  • Secondly, allow our partners to identify opportunities for developing innovative services by experimenting with data they usually would not have access to;
  • And thirdly, identify practical obstacles in using and sharing public and private data in order to set out sensible policy recommendations for the future.
Teams looked at three areas, using Camden's data (cleaned to ensure data protection) to ask these questions:
Street presence: how can we use the information and resources we have to better target our efforts to reduce crime and anti-social behaviour?
Housing: how can we target our repairs budget most effectively?
Social care: how can we predict who our future clients will be, to prevent them falling into dependency?
The event presented valuable insights into the area of Big Data - and is definitely something Camden should explore in more detail as we develop our new outcomes-based (or 'investment') approach to council budgeting for 2014 onwards.

My specific concern about data was this:

In 2010 the shock of front-loaded cuts means that councillors were served up with a range of unpalatable choices.  In our big spending departments, I remember pushing back in particular about cuts to  'low needs' services in adult social care (in Plain English this means luncheon clubs for seniors, still state-supported in Camden).

Officers put a choice to us: cut these popular but non-statutory services and ease pressure on statutory help for people with moderate or high needs (home care, bathing etc).  This made sense at the time from the perspective of having to make a short-term decision, but not a long-term one - because we didn't have the ability to deeper interrogate the data.

Luncheon clubs are for older people, who are well - but they are also linked to other services (e.g. the luncheon club at QCCA has fitness classes afterwards, see this moving video for their fundraising effort).  Removing these services also removes access to preventative help - which in turn might prevent admissions to A&E for trips and falls, which in turn result in people demanding more moderate or high needs care in the end.

Having good data therefore could enable decision-makers to really invest in preventative measures which help people and save money - while challenging services which might be 'gold-plated' because they are protected by statute.

Ultimately, it will enable us to humanise and personalise services - rather than relying on service run solely by state assumptions.

Overall, getting teams from across departments together to explore problems drove real insights - and having a wealth of data to hand meant that sacred cows could really be interrogated by public servant themselves.  There were some really good ideas on targeting housing repairs more accurately, using shared indicators.  How this works with other partners, e.g. NHS, might be more difficult, but also more rewarding in really driving out costs which fall between social care and health and in public health.  Here's my take on the hack day via local net entrepreneur Will Perrin (@willperrin) - mind my grinning face...

A further hack, with an emphasis on civic participation, will be hosted on 16th May - as part of the Camden Challenge.

"How to be a Changemaker"  will teach people about about tools and techniques for problem solving, and hear from innovators in Camden about how to  address the two Camden Challenge questions:
“What can we do to enable people on low incomes in Camden to thrive?”“
"How can we use space better in Camden?”
Young people have also been taking part in a more off-the-shelf interactions via the Camdenville project.

See the Hack Day You Tube here.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Green Bedroom Tax "no evictions" policy examined

Last week's Brighton Green Party claims to lead the country with a"radical" "no evictions" policy to the Bedroom Tax are set out in a council document on 8th May Housing Committee meeting:

Although it makes for a good headline the "no evictions" policy doesn't guarantee that if Bedroom Tax arrears are a factor people won't be evicted, it says that if Bedroom Tax is "solely due to the under-occupancy penalty" then there will be no evictions. 

Looking at the policy in the cold light of day, the view is that it will be unlikely - due to the range of benefit changes coming in at once - if people are protected.  If they are then, it will only apply to an extremely small group of people.

Camden has contacted a number of authorities reportedly agreeing “no eviction” policies. In all cases we have confirmed that in actual fact their policy is very similar to ours – offer every support possible: income maximisation, incentives to downsize, employment and skills advice and training before considering eviction as a final course of action. Camden's far reaching mitigation package can be viewed here.  

We have yet to have any such cases, and remember - the impact of other changes, especially in the private rented sector is likely to be far higher

There are already lots of tenants who were in arrears before the Bedroom Tax came in, such as those people who are already on housing benefit and seeing their housing support go down in really low paid jobs are right up against it.

So we asked ourselves - even if this was legal: is it fair to exempt one group, as opposed to all others? How effective could that be?  Is there a risk of leading people down a blind alley, rather than a workable policy?

According to the latest statistics published on Camden's welfare site
Bedroom Tax hit areas of council and social housing in Camden hardest

- 1944 council and social tenant households have been affected. 
- Most council tenants are under-occupying by 1 bedroom, for which average loss in benefit is£16.47/week.
- A further 20% are under-occupying by 2 bedrooms, with an average loss of £31.10/week.

Camden, with a high amount of council and social housing, is right at the front line.

It's clearly not as simple as saying to people that they should downsize - there clearly aren't the properties on the market to do that.  

If a only third of households moved, we would need an 308 one bedroom properties; 153 two beds; 36 three beds and 7 four beds to come onto the market.

The likelihood is that people in this situation will be forced further into poverty and debt, because they can't move to smaller council housing and can't move to the private rented sector locally.  This points to people sinking further into arrears which could culminate in evictions at some point in the future. 

Councils deal with rent arrears all the time.  Camden already has comprehensive policies established on late payment and debt.  

Like other Labour councils in London and across the country, we have said what we think we can deliver for the widest group of people : that eviction is only ever used as a very last resort in rent arrears cases (whether Bedroom Tax or not) and we work with other social and private landlords within the borough to ensure that evictions for rent arrears are prevented wherever possible.  

As with other councils, there are already protocols in place for the use of bailiffs for Council Tax (now charged on the poorest) or rent arrears. In all cases we attempt to make arrangements to pay affordable amounts or recover amounts directly from benefit payments rather than use bailiff an further court action. 

After raiding their housing repairs budgets, Brighton Council has set aside £70,000 to cover shortfalls from people "solely" evicted as a result of the Tax, suggesting that they think that a relatively small number of the 1000 impacted will actually fall into this category.  With substantially larger housing stock and repairs backlogs, it is unlikely London or councils with major inner cities will be able to do this.  In any case it appears that any change in Housing Revenue Account (HRA) policy, has to be agreed by the Secretary of State (at 3.11). 

Also I query how it would work - eviction orders I have seen to do with general rents involve individuals with several thousands in arrears who have consistently flouted reasonable repayment orders and not communicated with the council.  Losing £11 a week is just over £600 a year - so it would take several years before the sums added up, and yet the policy set out by Brighton only lasts for a year.

Of course, with other Labour councillors I do sympathise with any council wanting to come up with solutions.   But it’s not fair on every other council or social housing tenant who gets into financial arrears - because they’ve lost a job, or that they have a large family and have been hit by other welfare changes - that one group should be protected.

Exempting various groups from the new Council Tax Reduction Scheme each authority had to put in place last year carried with it quite a rigorous Equality Impact Assessment. Offering a no-eviction guarantee only to a specific group could carry the risk of challenge.  

Knowing this, I do question the motives of the Green's spinning the "no evictions" policy in this way - it does look like posturing, given the similarity with other councils' policies which don't call themselves "no eviction".

The Greens have pointed to the cross-party support for the "no evictions" policy at the housing meeting last week - I suspect faced with an up-or-down vote councillors went with the report.  Indeed Labour's Warren Morgan (@warrenmorgan) has just tweeted "support for report does not mean policy of non eviction effective or realistic." 

But ultimately those of us against the Bedroom Tax shouldn't be trying to jockey for position with faux-radical solutions (evidence from other councils (e.g. Liverpool, Camden, OxfordEdinburgh) suggests the Bedroom Tax "no evictions" call is a overt tactic to create 'red water' between the Greens and Labourshould be campaigning against the Government which introduced this particularly unfair measure and doing what we can to help people cope.

Update 29th May:  Rebel Brighton Green councillor Ben Duncan in his well-publicised spat with his own Party impliedly questions the effectiveness 'no eviction' policy in his statement in today's Argus:  

Jason Kitcat’s policies have time and time again betrayed working people, city residents – and the electoral interests of the Green Party of England and Wales. Whether it’s refusing to rule out cutting pay of unionised staff or evicting council tenants who fall into arrears because the nasty Tories have cut their benefits; championing the erection of a 140-metre high metal viewing platform on the seafront (committing millions in public money to the project); cosying up to local privatisers of public services; publicly championing tax-dodging Apple products; bullying and lying to colleagues - I could go on but, well, I’m sure you get the picture.”

Saturday, 11 May 2013

How the TPA got its sums wrong about Camden senior pay

Debating on ITV Daybreak with TPA Chief Exec
On Friday, in its annual 'Rich List', the Tax Payers Alliance made assertions about senior pay in Camden which are inaccurate and wrong.  Much to the annoyance of the TPA, who seem to be totally intolerant of criticism, we have challenged the report on air.  

From a misreading of our accounts, it claims that Camden variously had 40, or even over 60, employees earning over £100,000 in 2011/12.  This would place Camden as the authority with the most officers earning this salary in the country.  

The TPA seem to have got to their figure(s) by double counting (e.g. saying we have two Chief Execs in one year, which we did but not at the same time!).  They read salary band table and individuals table as separate staff, when they aren't. Sums were also inflated by adding pension contributions to salary, in order to bump as many officials over the £100k threshold as possible.

The TPA's misunderstanding led to strange charts in its report, which should've triggered their researcher to clarify whether they'd got it right before publication.
Nameless bureaucrats stalk Town Hall or TPA double counting?

The actual figure is 16, substantially lower than other comparable local authorities - it was therefore untrue to say we lead the country in senior pay and we went on air to rebut this.  Here are the accounts.

On air the TPA also stated that salaries and council tax kept going up over the last decade, but performance didn't.  This allegation also misunderstands local government, which is now seen as the most efficient part of government.  

Since 2000 local authorities have had more and more powers and areas of responsibility - childcare, scrutiny, recycling and sustainability, community safety, regeneration and well-being and now public health.  There have also been major structural changes, e.g. in Children's Services and City Deals.  Larger budgets have followed these new responsibilities, and salaries have risen to reflect this.    

Despite facing inner city challenges, Camden is one of the top-rated authorities in the country.  

Where we do pay chief staff high salaries - for example in Children's services-  it is because they manage large budgets and many complex cases.  The Director of CSF deals with many hundreds of vulnerable children and families.  We get results: OFSTED rated our primary schools are the best in the country and childcare and early years second to none.  Our response to the London riots gained national awards.

But the TPA don't care about quality - for them it's impossible for councils to have 'the best' public servants.  

Every year councils like Camden have to correct the poor research carried out by the Tax Payers Alliance.  If they can get our figures so wrong one has to question the veracity of their entire analysis.

Camden is transparent in what it pays senior staff. We have published this information online since 2010, and argued for publication against opposition from the Tories and Lib Dems when not in power.  In Camden we have driven down the cost of senior officers - from 2010-2012 expenditure on chief officer pay reduced by 20%.  Our top to bottom pay ration is 10:1, compared to 262:1 in FTSE 100 company.

Our transparency is more than can be said for the TPA, who themselves are funded by secretive US-style free enterprise groups and pro-private sector outfits who have an axe to grind against the public sector.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Bank and legal internships auctioned for Westminster School fundraising

Like other schools, exclusive Westminster (*Public) School, SW1 has set up an auction to help raise capital for new buildings.

Fair enough, you might say.

But let's look at what's on offer - here are a list of all auctions, ranging from writing master-classes to holidays, to an Arsenal Executive box or historic paving stones from the school Yard.

All above board - until you get to the 'professional' lots.  These include auctions for internship at an architectural practice, a much sought after mini-pupillage at a Barrister's Chambers and an internship at Private Bank Coutts&Co (as of 18.40 08/05/2013 £300).

Coutts is part of the taxpayer-funded RBS stable.

An internship at the Mail on Sunday for "one week's work experience" seems to have been recently removed.

So, as youth employment in London rises placements which could otherwise be used to give a young person from a less well-off background are being sold to the highest bidder.

Talk about insensitive.

Update:  The Bar Council has responded: saying that "internships should not be bought and sold."

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Savar and the fashion supply chain

With the death toll now at a reported 700, people are right to criticise British clothing retailer Primark on the Bangladesh factory collapse in Rana Plaza (e.g. CNJ Editorial, 2 May "Primark’s Lady Bountiful act is simply a cop-out").

Together with Bonmarche, they failed to join other companies in introducing safety rules in January that would have barred any purchases from a factory inside the Bangladeshi building that collapsed last week.  After the huge loss of life at a garment factory associated with Walmart fire last year, US clothing giant J.C. Penny introduced new rules in its supply chain - were the executives here asleep?

But questioning surely shouldn't stop at the big players - the Camden Lock markets, a go-to for alternative fashion, are the 4th most popular tourist destination in London.  The supply chain of increasingly cheaply-made t-shirts and accessories, which have out-competed traditional traders over the last decade, is not transparent and likely to come from wholesalers who are equally culpable, but away from the public eye.

It would be welcome if the owners of the many markets here could get together and address this question.


Camden council obtains the majority of our uniform requirements from  Ben Nevis (a local company).

Within the council's supply chain Camden uses the following companies:

Gildan are the suppliers of Sweatshirts and T-shirts.
Fruit Of The Loom suppliers of Polo shirts
Regatta are suppliers of Fleeces and jackets.

These suppliers are all classed as Fair Trade companies and the clothing has not been derived from Bangladesh.