I arrived 20 minutes early which gave time to read through the main points of
the Agenda and sat in solitary splendour throughout the meeting because I was the
only member of the public there. The evening began well enough, the two bouncers
hired to look after me smiled benignly when I acknowledged them on the way in;
the eye-catching Ceri Elliott-Yates murmured a greeting as she
took her seat as official minute writer, and councillor Howard Marriner (Conservative, Barnehurst)
introduced himself and shook me warmly by the hand. But peace and civility did not last very long.
Chairman Cheryl Bacon opened the meeting at 19:33 and by 19:36 it was in full scale blazing row mode. Councillor Munir Malik had objected to the minutes of the last meeting recording his personal interest in The Co-Operative Group. He said he mentioned that only in passing when the subject of supermarkets came up and as the subject itself had been too trivial to include in the minutes it was not right to record his declaration of an interest. Technically correct perhaps but Cheryl was having none of it delivering one of the Conservative’s traditional put downs of councillor Malik. Hence the immediate outbreak of hostilities. There were claims by Malik of “infatuation” [with his shareholding], shouts of “let me finish” and finally a threat of legal action. All puerile stuff over the recording of a fact which nobody was disputing. Councillor Malik said he owned only one share and it had no pecuniary value.
Councillor Colin Tandy said “It is fair to say I couldn’t care less about the Co-Op but having declared an interest you can’t undeclare it”. I think he probably summed things up pretty well. The addition of “Don’t declare interests if you don’t want them recorded” would appear to be a more dubious suggestion. Straight out of the Mike Slaughter book of dirty tricks by the sound of it.
There followed a discussion of which borough shopping centre was in the worst state with council officer Julia Webb saying it was undoubtedly Sidcup and referring to a survey her staff had conducted. Apparently you can’t even buy a pair of shoes in Sidcup. Conservatives agreed but councillor Malik begged to differ adding that Sidcup is “relatively affluent”. He suggested that the Mayor is spending money there to buy votes. Chairman Bacon became noticeably agitated at the suggestion that a politician might spend money to improve his chances of election.
Councillor June Slaughter said she was “delighted” that Mayor Boris Johnson was lavishing money on Sidcup and contrasted him with his predecessor “who didn’t know where Sidcup was”. She wanted to know what effect the widening of footpaths was going to have on parking spaces but no one knew.
Councillor Malik asked if he could see Julia Webb’s survey which favoured Sidcup but was slapped down with a “No” from the Chairman. He was not happy. Councillor ‘Biffa’ Bailey rose from her seat in finger wagging mode to admonish him. “Be quiet, you are rude” she said and went on to accuse him of being “absolutely barmy” and “beyond belief”. Maybe someone should present Biffa with a mirror.
Councillor Tandy added his two-penn‘orth without resorting to (too much) personal abuse. He said that Malik was “disingenuous, not something he is unknown for”. He said that “Welling is not in decline” and “Erith has had lots of money spent on it and not much to show for it”. “Sidcup has degenerated and needs money to pull it up again.”
Councillor Craske said about CCTV and crime levels that “Bexley is low [crime levels] because the community wants to keep it that way”. That is what I said months ago when he was praising various public bodies for whipping the population towards total compliance with the law and civilized behaviour. It’s good to note that councillor Craske may have seen the light.
Jane Richardson - she of the exemplary microphone technique - gave some statistics relating to the soon to be demolished Larner Road Estate. No more than eleven homes there are privately owned leading to a poor mix of incomes etc. Her report referred to ‘families’ and councillor Malik wanted to know how that was defined. Mrs. Richardson was unable to answer because the statement came from Orbit Housing Association but she would ask them. Councillor John Waters said it was “remarkable” that more dwellings were to replace the Larner Road tower blocks than are there now. Councillor Brenda Langstead said there were still nearly 7,000 people on the housing waiting list.
Councillor Craske announced that he had that very day decided to have free parking in major car parks over the Easter break. Councillor Malik reminded the meeting that the Christmas Eve concession was funded by council strikers. “Who was financing this one?” Craske said it was him.
The meeting moved on to discussion of the Olympics and the impact on Bexley. Ms. Richardson anticipated no disruption beyond ten to fifteen minute road closures when the torch comes through on a Sunday. She believed all road works are to be removed from the A2 for the duration of the games.
Councillor Tandy said the council should publicise little known routes around and in and out of the borough. The Sidcup to Woolwich rail loop via Crayford and Slade Green. The DLR from Woolwich Arsenal to central London and Stratford and the Overground from New Cross to the northern borders of the metropolis. I would call him a trains-spotting nerd except that he revealed nothing I didn’t know about already. Councillor Marriner said that there should have been Park & Ride schemes set up just beyond the London borough boundaries but the Chairman said none were planned.
A discussion on parking penalties provided a few interesting statistics from Mike Frizoni (Deputy Director, Public Realm Management). The contractor is required to keep mistakes leading to successful appeals under 50 a month. If it rises above that they incur a penalty of 0·3% of their fee, 0·55% from 101 to 150 errors and beyond that the full amount of each lost penalty charge. Councillor Malik said that no one should forget the cost in time and human suffering that unfair penalties cause or the fact that some people pay for the sake of a quiet life. Probably Frizoni wasn’t listening.
Pay by phone got an airing too. According to councillor Craske the number signed up for it had just reached 8,563. This is about 1,000 a month since the last announcement so we are on course to have all the cars in Bexley registered at some time just within the next 15 years.
Pay by Phone was extended to car parks in November 2011 and to on-street spaces by today. Craske said it would be a choice between phone or cash and then rather spoilt things by saying he would be looking at reducing the number of cash machines.
In order to satisfy local traders who have suffered a 40% loss of trade thanks to Craske, he is trialling at one shop a system which allows customers to pay in the shop or have the shop-keeper pay the fee. How drivers will avoid getting a ticket while they run to and queue in the shop wasn’t explained but at least Craske is showing some concern for the pain he has inflicted. Surprisingly Mr. Frizoni didn’t know if the present system allowed payment at suspended bays.
The meeting ended a little before 22:00 and if I hadn’t attended many meetings before I might have said that the members of this one came close to being sensible and reasonable; only Biffa Bailey seriously let the side down. Even councillor Peter Craske failed to put a foot wrong. Maybe the thought of one of their mates’ names being in front of the Crown Prosecution Service is a salutary lesson that they are supposed to be our servants not domineering tyrants. But don’t be too optimistic, the really nasty pieces of work aren’t members of this particular committee.