Sunday, 18 January 2015

On Tesco and Belsize Park

Tesco proposes to open a store in Belsize Park, at the site of the old HSBC.  As with the attempt to open a Sainsbury's in South End Green, the idea has come against strong opposition and a feisty campaign.

No to Tesco is led by local Belsize Councillors and celeb Tom Conti (now Emma Thompson) is supported by a large number of petition signatories (you can sign here is you are so minded).

I have no great love for high street chains, but I am unsettled by aspects of this campaign - like these objections about staff or some of the reasons for refusing the alcohol licence.   

This is why.  Camden is a mixed community and most Camdeners shop in normal, brand supermarkets so the campaigners need to careful not to send off the wrong signals that their area will suddenly deteriorate beyond recognition because it is served by the same shops everyone else uses.  The campaign should avoid coming across as 'exclusive' and take care to 'check their privilege' otherwise it may backfire and actually embolden Tescos to reach out to the silent customer base it feels isn't served locally.  Presumably the reason why it is opening here and Sainsbury's wanted South End Green was that their research tells them that.  

We need to be careful not to send people down blind alleys: the licensing application will be very difficult to turn down.  The judgement will rest on quality of argument rather than sheer volume of people saying the same thing on questionable grounds.  The council is duty-bound to hear cases in a set period of time: you can't not process an application you don't like and the applicant has the right to submit whenever they want.  The site is not in a Special Policy area so is likely to go entirely for the normal framework hours.  In past experience concerns are much more likely to be addressed by condition (training for staff on alcohol sales) rather than outright refusal.

A constituent wrote to me making a good point which should also be heard:  We also know that food as a percentage of income for those on lower wages is much higher than those of the rich. We can be as critical of Tesco as we want, because of competition food prices are going down...this mostly benefits those on lower incomes.

In the future we might think about how local businesses to develop a more objective 'chain-free street' brand/campaign (we recently backed We support Small Business Saturday for traders in Queens Crescent) emphasising your pride in not having too many chains on the stretch/local community etc so there is more of an objective justification to avoid this in the future and to deter other speculative bids by major names - see the problems we are having elsewhere in Camden with Foxtons.  

We don't live in a society where we can stop businesses from buying properties or competing with other businesses because we subjectively don't like them.  The council doesn't have general powers to prevent certain retailers or individuals buying properties - established national laws and frameworks favour business, and always have.  On planning and licensing the system in this country gives a presumption to grant (with conditions) rather than refuse.  
The most likely way to win for the campaign is public pressure from as wide a base as possible.  I was part of the anti-Starbucks campaign in 2002 in Primrose Hill, the company were within the law to open up a shop and the council had no grounds to stop them doing so. They backed down and never came back because 4000 people signed a petition against it and they considered that it was harming their reputation. 

I live around the corner from a Sainsbury's local.  It's convenient to grab something when the weekly shop runs out but after a while I got bored by the lack of choice and how expensive it turned out to be.  I now do most of my shopping at the store run Sil and Roj, a new independent store which is better and cheaper and has far more product ranges.  

The council is drawing up the new Local Plan which will have an important section on independent shops, although these need to be in conformity with new national rules.      

Just as we don't a bland street with only national chains, we don't want a street full of boutiques.  Ideally we'd have a high street mix with community and corporate anchors so there is choice and competition for all the community.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Prepare for the big attacks on public services from Tory paper 'data teams'

The headline of today’s Times screamed of the “scandal” of a “£5bn spree” by local councils {paywall} on agency staff and temporary workers.  The piece, worked by veteran Whitehall Editor Jill Sherman and the ‘Times Data Team’, had the appearance of a classic Tory hit-job in the press - including a pre-baked quote from Eric Pickles on consultants in Whitehall and a dated editorial about wasteful centralisation and the 'Big Society'.  Poor.

For colleagues running councils up and down the country:  welcome to the shape of things to come.  With the Conservatives lagging behind in the polls on trust with public services the only likely response will be to diss the otherwise good record of local councils in providing efficient services with less money in a period of rising demand.  

This is all a part of a Tory election strategy to highlight profligacy in the state and, by implication, that Labour is as incompetent with taxpayer’s money as it is high spending.

Of course, the sensationalist totaling up of some big numbers neglects the nuance and detail of running complex public services - but why would you if you have some juicy numbers?

Since we are talking about agency workers and consultants, let’s examine that.

Expenditure on short-term staff happens, but it is important to see this as a proportion of total payroll - in Camden this stands at 10%.  Payroll is the highest spend from pretty much any organisation, public or private.  Like other councils we are constantly working to minimise agency staff in the face of rising pressures, we are not embarking on a "spree".

Secondly, much of this spend is where there is a statutory duty set in Westminster: like for at risk children or vulnerable adults.  Other areas of high demand include IT change, where we compete with the private sector for talent to help transform services.

Where we can't fill a post, often because we can't find the right people for the job due to intense competition (especially in London), we often have to find cover.

Thirdly, where councils are building - one in 20 council house starts in the country are in Camden - we employ external help to deliver these projects.  I don't know anyone who would count this as waste.  

Glib comparisons made in the article by Secretary of State Eric Pickles with the reduction in consultant spend in his department are characteristically unhelpful because the CLG is a Whitehall department and doesn't deliver any frontline services to vulnerable people or build the new homes people really need.

In the coming months expect the following, with questions asked, like the Times, over the period of a Parliamentary term:  how much did your council spend on redundancy payments?  How many computers did you report lost or stolen?  Has your council tax collection rate dropped?

Never mind if there’s a rational explanation (redundancy payments are high because there have been lots of redundancies; more people use computers, more people work remotely to save on overheads so this is more of a risk; council collection rates have dropped because government changes to council tax benefit means the poorest are paying it for the first time, creating collection problems)… total up a big number and we’ll find a big problem. 

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Statement on the cuts for 17 December Cabinet - Camden's cuts challenge post 10

Conservatives and the smaller state
The Coalition’s cuts to council budgets are a demonstration of their broader plans for public services. They want to roll back the state.  If it’s not recognisably the Road to Wigan Pier then it’s a journey towards a more American Republican model of smaller, limited government with greater use of charities in social policy. 

As Camden council enters its 50th year, this is in direct contrast to the approach taken by generations of Labour councillors here in this Chamber - and the wishes of residents, community groups and campaigners who want to see a council which places social justice at the heart of what it does.

I said 4 years ago that the cuts caused by the banking crisis would be borne by those who had nothing to do with it.  That is what happened and there’s more to come.  More families on low and modest incomes are poorer with less disposable income.  Those that can find work are stuck in a low wage trap.  More have had to move from the borough because of the Bedroom Tax, introduced by the Tories nationally and supported by them locally.  
Poverty is not just unfair but it’s also a waste and waste is inefficient.  Remember: the more people who suffer, the higher the demand for public services.  
The Camden Graph of Doom

Camden’s ‘graph of doom’ predicts future spending.  It estimates that if things don’t change Camden will have no money for anything other than street cleaning and recycling; adult social care and safeguarding children by 2021. 


Do you think that at the end of austerity the Conservatives will pledge to put more money back into libraries or youth centres?  No.  The Conservatives set out their stall when they promised tax cuts over public service funding.  

So despite the national economic picture finally improving after the long slump caused by the banking crisis, over the next three years Camden Council faces its toughest financial challenge yet. The Council has already made £93 million in savings across the Council since 2011, while continuing to deliver quality services to local people, build new homes and get young people into work. Now, further cuts to government funding alongside other social pressures – including an ageing population and have left us with a budget gap of £70 million to find by 2017/18.  

Funding cuts continue to disproportionately affect those councils with the greatest need. On the government’s own estimates, Camden faces the 8th largest spending power cut per dwelling in  2015/16 among all other local authorities nationally – and by 2017 Camden’s funding from central government will have been cut in half.

Camden Labour has tried to prioritise the money we have left for vulnerable people and what we know will help them best and help save money in the long run. We’ve focused on tackling inequality, preventing people getting in to trouble and being as efficient as we can. This means extra money in some areas like mental health prevention and domestic violence. But also means some very difficult cuts to services that we know people value.

As Labour councillors we are in a particularly difficult position implementing cuts to public services we never wanted to – but let’s be clear: the responsibility lies with George Osborne and the Tory/Lib Dem Coalition. One-term Tory austerity didn’t work because it started off by doing too much too fast, as we warned. Alistair Darling’s plan for spending restraint and investment was replaced by deep cuts in the measures in the emergency budget of 2010 and the first settlement which choked the recovery already underway.  It left no room for error, so when European economies started to suffer there was little scope to compensate.  They sole purpose of the Coalition was to deal with the deficit.  They have failed.

It's clear there is a need for public spending restraint so I also question those who only argue 'to turn the taps back on' without identifying where the money comes from.      

But while I appreciate the difficult situation they are in, I’m also critical of Labour’s front bench when it comes to local government spending.  Hilary Benn loses far too many arguments on spending around the Shadow Cabinet table to other departments: most recently over borrowing caps for council housing.  Too many senior figures take a blinkered approach to local government, and London local government in particular.

So it’s essential that we fight for a Labour government in 2015 which will protect the future of the welfare state and universal public services.  The financial formula which recognised the pressures of inner London should be restored.  Labour’s plan for decentralisation should cede Whitehall spending and powers to local authorities so we have more control over local public services and are able do more for the most vulnerable: after all, we know more about those with the most complex needs than Whitehall agencies do.  

Our Plan
Here in Camden we can't sit passively by and let these cuts work themselves out.  In order balance the books decided to take a three year strategic approach to addressing the projected budget deficits. The three year strategy phases the changes so that we can make informed choices, like UNISON's Ethical Care Charter. 

The Council’s experience is that reducing budgets by a set percentage across the board is not an effective way to meet these unprecedented cuts. Therefore the council has taken the opportunity to take a planned, longer term approach, looking in detail at all of the Council’s spending to consider how to provide services for less whilst still maintaining range and quality.

Our Four Investment Tests have guided our decision-making to ensure services still tackle inequality and money is spent on the things which have the greatest impact. 

The new Outcomes-Based Budget approach has allowed the Council to free up some resources for reinvestment. Examples include enhanced focus on tackling domestic violence, reinvestment in childcare, and an innovative partnership fund in mental health. 

We set out to make efficiency measures first.  Smaller support services and streamlined management structures are a major component of this, as well as the adopting of systems thinking.  Technology - through open IT and data analytics, will be a component in over 85% of our initiatives.

The Council is already considerably leaner than in the past. For example, the senior management pay bill has been reduced by over 20% since 2010. We will continue this by reducing further the number of management roles, reducing use of agency workers and consultants we don’t need, and reducing the cost of our support services, including finance, human resources, information technology and property. 

Talking to residents
We haven’t made this plan without talking with and listening to residents.  We’ve gathered comments from over 2000 people just at this stage, in one of the largest listening exercises of its kind.  

One of the strongest messages we received from residents was the importance of prioritising the money we have to protect our most vulnerable residents and avoiding the large scale privatisation neighbouring boroughs have embarked on. 

Residents were also clear that they wanted to see greater value for money in outsourced repairs and street cleaning contracts negotiated by the Tory-Lib Dem administration before 2010.  While progress is being made here, I will announce further measures to ensure value for money in the New Year.  

Job losses
It is estimated that the saving proposals agreed in September and those proposed in this report could result in a reduction of up 600 in our Full Time Equivalent staff posts. Any staff reductions required will be managed in line with the Council’s well-established procedures and be subject to an equalities impact assessment. Initial discussions have commenced with staff and trade unions about proposals for meeting the financial challenges ahead. 

Measures are already in place to minimise potential redundancies such as holding vacancies and the use of redeployment where possible, but I pledge to monitor this issue an address UNISON’s concerns.

Use of reserves
We cannot agree with the proposal plug our funding gap by using reserves. Reserves are one-off balances and are allocated to specific projects or to mitigate corporate risks. These include funding for projects that will achieve ongoing savings such as our customer access programme, as well as towards fighting the negative impacts of HS2 on local residents.  

Reserves can only be used once so they aren’t a sustainable way of plugging a permanent reduction in funding. They also take away from capital projects – to do so, for example, would means the end to the Parliament Hill renewal.   

Conclusion
In summary I thank council staff for their hard work in putting together the MTFS – we are not even halfway through a difficult journey which is transforming local government and how its serves local people.  So far it has proved resilient, just how far that will last if is now open to question after the end of this financial plan.

Will tech will save us? - Camden's cuts challenge post 9

Chi Onwurah's excellent Digital Government review set the direction for Labour's approach to digital and public service reform. With councils up and down the country facing huge cuts in their government grant, digital technologies are playing an increasing role in helping authorities balance their books.  

Camden's started a debate by adopting an expansive view of technology in our Digital Strategy.  In the latest update to this we estimate that £60m of the £70m required over the next three years will be delivered by technology solutions.

A fundamental part of this was consideration of how technology would be consumed to support Outcomes Based Budgeting in the Financial Strategy - as there is symbiotic relationship between technology and our ability to achieve outcomes.  Primarily, this involved a judgement on the extent to which OBB initiatives needed to:
  • channel shift, e.g. as the next wave of customer access proposals do / or the personalisation of adult social care expects? 
  • would the initiative require analytics to improve performance or better resource allocation?
  • did the initiative need agile working (e.g. mobile apps, more knowledge working, more wifi? 
  • would it require infrastructure to link services up (e.g. single sign-on / shared services / integrated patient data / making more use of the Camden Resident Index etc)?
  • did it involve changes to our applications (e.g. an upgrade / change / modification)?and
  • if services were being externalised would they need new information sharing arrangements to be put in place or data migrated to a new system? 
What our assessment over the summer showed is that to deliver the Financial Strategy a number will be enabled by digital technology. However, they will consume them for different reasons (e.g. they are linked to web developments or rely on mobile working or several in some cases) and at different levels (e.g. some will require major investments and others less so).

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Thoughts on the Holborn&St.Pancras Labour nomination

Congratulations to Keir Starmer, who ran a solid, clean and impressive campaign which chimed with the majority of members in Holborn&St.Pancras at our selections last night!  

For the record I backed Sarah and voted:  Sarah, Keir and Patrick.
Keir Starmer selected for Holborn&St.Pancras
  


I genuinely thought it would be closer, and now I owe the CNJ Xmas hamper £20 courtesy of a bet with #1 Keir-ramper Robert Latham on whether Starmer would win at the first round or not!  

In the final analysis members clearly wanted to add strength to the party through Keir's undoubted depth from outside of politics.   

Re: the KS vs SH contest I felt that there was a 'two-for-the-price-of-one' dynamic - by voting for Keir you'd also have Sarah as council leader also played in his favour.  Whoever your preferred candidate, I'm sure all who voted there know that he'll make a great MP. 

Journalist Richard Osley has blogged about this here.  Aside one or two things like Tom Copley being a 'stalking horse' for Sarah (no-one knows how that could work and a bit harsh on Tom) or councillors 'cynically' voting for her (life isn't all about Town Hall politics you know...) - it's pretty much on the money.

Here are my observations about the result:

All the main candidates had calibre to represent the constituency.  The 'runners' included a respected local GP, two Council leaders (one former) and the ex- Director of Public Prosecutions.  Raj injected (perhaps late) passion on issues like unilateralism and student loans and cited his legal career; Sarah stood on a record of council delivery and core campaigning (needed, but a point no so much recognised by the audience); Patrick on local connections and the NHS (liked, but not enough as a USP), and Keir on his record as a high performer and running a public sector organisation.  In my opinion all those who lost out could be excellent MPs and will be stronger for the experience. I felt in the final weeks that the membership were closing in on Keir because of his extra ability to add value to the SW1 Labour gene pool - because he's an achiever who comes from outside of traditional politics. The recent perceived 'wobble' definitely firmed peoples' minds up.  His speech had fewer words than the others, but - for me - conveyed the necessary gravitas.   
Step away from the box-set. No fix here.

Westminster Commentators:  you can't fix a membership of 1349. Step away from the House of Cards box-set. One of the largest constituencies in the country can't be manipulated: if someone tried it would very quickly come to light and backfire. Talk of a 'leadership fix' for the seat is rubbish and takes on an overly-stylised view of politics. Move on, nothing to see here: besides, it's a slur on the hard work of our volunteer Selection Committee, who did a great job...

...on the contrary members had a difficult task weighing things up and making a choice: selecting on a seat-by-seat basis as we have done, in the time-honoured way, means that members have to weigh up a huge number of factors when they choose a candidate, including some of the ones I talk about below.  This is not an easy task at all.    
       
The majority of votes were for those who occupied the mainstream.  Starting early clearly helped both Raj and Keir but doesn't explain the politics going on.  In the absence of Tom Copley - who pulled out early - Raj closed as the firmly  'Left' candidate, backed by some of the London players in this zone.  To a large extent Patrick, Keir and Sarah essentially competed for the majority mainstream vote which makes up the bulk of the constituency. In the end Keir had more appeal and bandwidth to the mainstream group, with the Raj pitch to the traditional Left throwing up a bit of support on the day but effectively bumping against quite a low ceiling.    

The 'arms race' for endorsements looked a bit silly.  All candidates went for celeb endorsements and pushed them out to the local press: Kinnock, Prescott, the Lawrences (who endorsed different people), Andrew Motion etc.  It must be irresistible for a candidate not to go down this route when others did.  I'm not sure it added much.  

There were differences but the selection campaign didn't really 'go negative'. When I got involved locally in the 1990s there were still some sore heads about how Frank Dobson wrestled the seat from Jock Stallard back in the day.  Apart from whispers here and there, dealt with by Osley this was nothing like that. Obviously supporters will muscle for their candidates during the process, but the Hampstead&Kilburn selection seemed a far tetchier affair.  In any case, here the field of 5 candidates meant second preference votes were 'in play' so any tactic like that would have backfired even if they'd wanted to.  Also, not everything is about the politics, in this Labour Party many of us are friends as well as colleagues and voted in different ways, the result doesn't change any of that for anyone.        

Our large membership needs to be more reflective of inner London.   
The sight of at least 450 members trooping in to St.Pancras Church was an impressive sight, and a long list of names from law, journalism and academia.  Any independent observer may have perhaps pondered on the profile of the membership and how it might better to reflect the diversity of inner London: more younger people, more tenants, more minority voice. This is a problem with all political parties, but as with other issues, people rightly expect Labour to go the extra mile.  Taking just one aspect: the Labour Party still has a problem with women selected in non All-Women Shortlist seats.  


Camden Labour had an office once
One of Keir's first tasks is to use his momentum to his victory by reaching out and building the party to be even stronger. Labour needs a high street office presence - the seat hasn't had one for a number of years - and a commitment 'on the ground': sometimes the relationship with MPs ofices has been distant.   In fact, somewhat independently of our MPs, local councillors and a core of members have been rowing hard with time, money and effort for over the last 15 years to maintain and rebuild a successful operation in both constituencies - so we look to both Tulip (who is doing this already with aplomb) and Keir to be the kind of campaigning MP seen in other seats, like Emily did with Islington South when she came in.    
Housing is the number one issue for Camdeners

Housing is without a doubt the number one issue for Camdeners, but perhaps not as much as candidates thought for the selectorate - Related to the above point about diversity: the council's polling shows that by far the most important issue to local people is being able to afford to stay here.  I reflected on this as members perhaps didn't quite respond as much as anticipated to messages from all candidates around rent controls, more housing borrowing and building.  Nevertheless having a proper champion for housing policy is essential in Westminster. Keir made this central to his conversation on inequality, so we'll watch this space.  

Union nominations are a fascinating thing to watch as an observer.  The GMB, UNITE and ASLEF chose their candidate before nominations for the seat even opened, raising questions about just how the values of unions are aligned with candidates when the field isn't even known.  UNISON and Community at least nominated after the candidates had been revealed and selections had closed.  'Behind the screens' ways of sorting these out seem a bit 20th century and don't reflect on the unions themselves very well.  Certainly several by-passed UNITE members who perhaps naively expected to have some say in the process were left scratching their heads about how things came to pass - but that's a different story which has been written about elsewhere about elsewhere.       

The question to candidates about whether we should ally with the Greens: Selection committee...with the Leader of the Green Party standing here in Holborn&St.Pancras what on earth was that about? [later edit:  No, this isn't whether I wanted my rather broad and boring questions used -  apparently the qs were chosen random, still strikes me as an odd question to make it through!  That said, during canvassing I have bumped into the odd Green-voting Labour member so maybe it ain't all that strange].

Monday, 20 October 2014

Leese on London: DevoManc beats London's governance structures

The Leader of Manchester Council on London's constitutional settlement vs DevoManc:
London under its current structures can't do what Greater Manchester can do which is not only to support job-creating growth but also reorganise public services around people, their families and the places they live rather than in traditional service silos. London's problem is that it has a two tier structure. The Mayor is responsible for economic development, transport, police and not a lot else if you exclude self-promotion. The thirty two London boroughs and the City of London Corporation are responsible for all the other things a council like Manchester does.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Camden's cuts challenge 8 - Camden Graph of Doom


Camden's 'Graph of Doom'
While the last round of cuts (2010-2014) was difficult the Council was able to protect services by developing alternative solutions.  This time we must go further.  We are reviewing over 100 different council services. Those that don’t face substantial reductions could face fundamental change.

The table to the side illustrates this in a new way - our version of the Barnet 'Graph of Doom'. Our projections based on decreasing revenue grant from the government, changes to local government finance and demographic pressures mean that by 2020 we will have effectively run out of money for all other services apart from the core services of waste/recycling, adult social care and safeguarding children.

The ways we can address this include:

  • cutting costs generally via outcomes-based budgets
  • controlling demand for services (e.g. changing eligibility)
  • automation and new technology (e.g. digital self-service for all those who can use internet)
  • ensuring that these core services are made as efficient as possible and reducing spend (services not 'gold-plated')
  • raising revenue and income such as commercial rents, fees, Council Tax (note many government rules restrict this)
  • growing our business rate base from new sites on brownfield land or new employment space created, for example, in taller buildings and guarding against any loss of businesses (note that the office-to-resi planning changes go directly against this and there is a trade-off with other needs like building new homes)
  • Delivering more services and solving problem sub-regionally, as advocated by London Treasurer's this week.
All of these involve difficult decisions and trade-offs.  

Tonight Camden hosts a roundtable event to discuss the future of public services and how they can be delivered differently in the future.


In the face of unprecedented reductions in public service expenditure, growing inequality and uneven economic growth across Britain, there is increasingly active discussion about how public services should be delivered in the future, by whom, and at what ‘level’. The broad direction of travel is towards greater decentralisation, with budgets, governance and responsibility for delivering outcomes devolved to local authorities, Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs), other local partners and communities themselves.

Camden is proud to provide some of the best public services in the country. We want to continue that tradition and believe that the public service reform agenda means that we have to find radical new ways of delivering services for local residents: an ongoing commitment we have made in the Camden Plan.