Yesterday’s meeting was dominated by discussion of the Howbury area of Slade
Green on the eastern extremity of the borough. Bexley council has sold the site
to Redrow Homes and a whole new community of homes, new roads, shops and schools
are planned to renew a deprived area; but not everyone is happy. According to
Paul Moore, Director of Corporate Services, Howbury has been a priority for the
council for more than 30 years “but we are not there yet”, which seemed to
indicate a long history of setback and failure. A petition of 2,280 signatures
was presented to the council by ‘Howbury Friends’ whose leader, Melanie Hudson,
backed by about 40 supporters in the public gallery, raced through her address
so quickly that my shorthand skills could not keep up.
Among the points made were that 36·5% of children in the area were living in poverty, 36% leave school with no qualifications at all, that Slade Green was in the top 5% of most deprived wards in the country and that Bexley council had neither consulted enough nor done enough to help the community which is largely served by voluntary and self-help groups. A particular source of concern was the loss of sporting facilities and the community meeting rooms which are currently available, albeit in a possibly run down state in need of renewal.
The cabinet chairman, council leader Teresa O’Neill was in a generous frame of mind in that she allowed Ms. Hudson to speak for longer than the allotted five minutes and accepted a question from the floor without a word of complaint. The latter is totally unprecedented in my experience, such interruptions are usually severely stamped on, but perhaps I have not heard the leader handle a petition before as they are usually presented to council rather than cabinet meetings where (ex) mayor Val Clark set the tone. Leader O’Neill achieved a much more relaxed meeting; she summed up Ms. Hudson‘s address as her being happy with the proposals for housing and schools but not with the provision for community activities which was probably about right.
Councillor Linda Bailey said that the proposals on the table were generous and suggested that it may be possible to hire out the school hall as a substitute sports hall at affordable rates. The petitioners expressed concern about what “affordable rates” might mean and were supported by councillor Borella, he too was “very worried about the pricing of facilities”.
Councillor Brenda Langstead reminded the meeting that the recently increased car parking charges resulted in lower revenue, clearly indicating that council greed can be counter-productive. She also said that the rejuvenation of the Howbury area would result in community facilities being reduced to less than a third of what there is now.
The Howbury Friends were still concerned about the lack of community space for the many voluntary activities the local population have organised for themselves. Councillor John Davey thought he would set their minds at rest. “I am a governor of Erith School and they hire out their hall at a meeting at a cost neutral price”. “How much?” asked Ms. Hudson, she was naturally concerned to know whether her volunteer groups could afford the price. “We don’t make a profit” said councillor Davey unhelpfully. Ms. Hudson tried putting her question another way to see if Davey could understand. Eventually the answer came. “I don’t know.” Councillor John Davey; ever the duffer.
Councillor Campbell spoke more sense, he advocated that the Howbury scheme should be grabbed quick because no more capital projects could be funded in the present economic climate. Inflation wasn’t going to go down any time soon, the cost of public services were being transferred from central to local government and along with it all risk. Things could only get worse. Sometimes I find myself warming to councillor Campbell’s straight talking (but the feeling only lasts for a few TICs); and then the guillotine descended and the vote was called and the cabinet unanimously approved the Howbury proposals. So what good did the petition achieve? Nothing was changed.
Following that the Transport Implementation Plan wasn’t discussed at all; no one had anything to say. A similar fate awaited the ‘Ageing Well’ Action Plan with nothing of great note said, and so, at little more than 70 minutes after the meeting started, all the councillors could make their way back to their free car parking facilities. Mr. Loynes (Head of Democratic Services) who used to attend such meetings was absent.
After the meeting concluded the relatively light mood continued; Mr. Barnbrook of the Bexley Council Monitoring Group is a firm believer in keeping up appearances and attends council meetings in a suit, tie and well polished shoes. It upsets him that the deputy leader of the council almost never wears a tie. He decided to present councillor Campbell with one in silk Tory blue. The gift was well intentioned with no ulterior motive but councillor Campbell declined it. Had he done so I would not have had anything to report and in hindsight he may regret not telling his benefactor that he would donate it to his nearest charity shop.
“You are going to need this when she (motioning towards the leader) goes to work for Boris Johnson” said Mr. B., after which the conversation took a turn for the worse with the deputy leader contriving a joke involving undergarments both male and female. There were smiles all round. If I had been presenting a gift to a politician and was keen that it should be accepted I would wrap it in a brown envelope rather than a Marks & Spencer bag. Perhaps Mr. Barnbrook would have more success with his generosity if he presented some of his cast offs to councillor Borella and friends. Sometimes the Labour bench has, sartorially speaking, more in common with a meths drinkers’ convention than a council chamber. Councillors Ball and Malik I should hasten to add were absent last night.