Report of the Open Meeting / The Pinner Association 87th Annual General Meeting held on 17th April 2019 at the Pinner Village Hall.
We were very pleased that the new CEO of Harrow Council, Sean Harriss, agreed to speak at the Pinner Association Open Meeting / AGM on 17th April. Robin Youle, President of The Pinner Association, welcomed Mr Harriss and Navin Shah AM to the meeting, and introduced Mr Harriss to the audience of some 100 members and others, explaining that he had previously been the CEO of Bolton and more recently the CEO of the London Borough of Lambeth.
Sean Harris remarked that he had been in post in Harrow for only ten weeks but already felt welcome and it was a privilege to work with councillors and council officers so committed to the borough and its residents. However, he was aware that there were issues that were of concern to some in the audience.
Harrow Council had two roles as the local authority; first as the provider of services, either directly or via third parties; and second to provide community leadership, such as liaison with the police to reassure the community about and plan a response to the recently violent incidents in the borough; longer term strategic planning for the regeneration of the borough; liaison with the local NHS; and communication with all local faith groups. The key duty of the council was to glue communities and place into a whole, and he had been impressed with how well the many varied communities in Harrow all worked together.
Providing over 500 different services for some or all of the quarter of a million population of the borough was a challenge in this time of austerity in public spending. Some services were delivered to only a small number of residents in need of specific assistance, for example the 30 to 40 disabled children who required social care, whereas other services were used by many of the residents. There are some 5,000 council tenants, and many of the older population received social care assistance, and the boroughs parks and libraries are well used by a large number of residents. Some services were popular with residents, such as the libraries, but others less so, such as council tax collection and parking enforcement, but all were necessary.
Difficult choices had to be made as a large amount of the council’s annual budget had to be spent on a relatively small proportion of the population, such as on child and adult social care which was a statutory duty, leaving only a relatively small amount for spending on the physical environment of the borough such as parks, waste collection, street cleaning, etc.. This meant that many council tax payers felt as if they were getting less but paying more, but this was due to the funding to Harrow from central government reducing dramatically from £53 million in the past to only £1.5 million this year. The inevitable decline in services was giving rise to frustrations and changing the relationship between the council and its residents.
Mr Harriss then answered questions from the audience. In reply to a query as to whether the Civic Centre was to move to Wealdstone he explained that the proposal to build a new Civic Centre building was to go to the Harrow Council Cabinet in May. The preference was still to build a smaller new Civic Centre and regenerate the current site for housing, but the time scale for this project had slipped.
Many in the audience asked about the “fiasco” still ongoing with the “Brown Bin” garden waste collections. The new bin stickers used to identify those households who had paid for this additional service had not been distributed to many of those who had already paid for the coming year’s collections. Harrow Council was sending out emails to those complaining blaming the postal delivery, but this was considered not to be the problem in the majority of cases. Mr Harriss agreed that the communication with and from the council about this matter had been remiss and that mistakes had been made with transferring data on those addresses that had paid. He felt that communication with the council must be improved and was actively working on solving all the problems with the brown bin collections.
The difficulty of those who do not use a computer in contacting the council was raised, and Mr Harriss acknowledged that the council was moving more of its contacts to on-line only. The “Access Harrow” phone call centre had previously employed 160 staff, but now there were only 60 employed. The driver for this was cost reduction, due to the effect of austerity on the council. He would look into the difficulties that some residents were having in communicating with the council. The Harrow Council website was currently being redesigned to be more user friendly and it was hoped that the new website would be available in six to nine months. He was asked to ensure that the new website was thoroughly “road tested” before going live, as the current website was full of bugs that made it virtually useless at times, and he confirmed that 1,500 volunteers had already been identified who would test the new website before it was released.
Other issues raised was where would Bridge Street residents park once the Waxwell Lane car park was shut, and whether the council would be able to assist residents of St Michael’s Crescent with liaising with the police on setting up CCTV cameras at each end of that road following the recent spate of burglaries in the area?
Robin Youle thanked Sean Harriss for speaking and answering questions and the audience showed their appreciation.