The parlous state of Bexleyheath’s public realm did its best to make me late for last night’s Public Realm meeting at the Civic Centre. The queue for the temporary lights at the western end of Broadway was back past the police station in Arnsberg Way and my bus was unable to get out of Mayplace Road. It was stuck for long enough for the following 229 to pass it at the Clocktower bus ‘terminal’.
As a result I was the last member of the public into the council chamber (fourth!) and all the Agenda copies had gone and I had to beg a copy from the Bexley Council Monitoring Group guys.
The problems didn’t end there, a jobsworth told me I couldn’t sit at a desk and I must sit on a chair from which no good view of the proceedings was available. I reminded him of the council’s legal obligations but he was unimpressed and said he was going to report me to the chairman of the meeting. I heard no more and the chairman, councillor Cheryl Bacon, even went so far as to welcome members of the public. A first I think.
Councillor Caroline Newton was asked to start by reporting on her sub-group’s study of the borough’s demographics, or as it was in practice, a study of the demographics of Thamesmead. At the conclusion, councillor John Waters praised it as an “admirable summary” while I had considered it to be a waffling statement of the obvious. Have some examples…
• The population of Thamesmead is a mix of families who have lived in the area for some time and those who are comparatively new.
• Due to the ethnic diversity a number of languages are spoken.
• A range of languages are spoken in schools and some children do not speak English.
• Deprivation in Thamesmead is higher than the Bexley average.
• We cannot keep an eye on every single member of the public.
Profound eh? It reminded me of that Pippa Middleton party book in which she told us that a turkey makes a good meal on Christmas Day. However I learned a lot more from Caroline Newton than I did from the next Agenda item which proved totally impossible to follow.
This was because Item 6 was to discuss a document called ‘Performance Management Framework, Quarter 2, 2012/13’ and the Agenda made it clear that it was available only to councillors - which is an offence against the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985. See panel on the left for the relevant extract.
Agendas are no doubt expensive to produce and correctly guessing the requirement must be fraught with difficulty but providing no more than four copies of the Agenda and none of the reports is I would suggest falling a long way short of fulfilling the legal obligations.
The next item was a discussion on the Public Realm budget where self congratulation is the name of the game. For example we are going to save £20,000 next year by not putting water in the William Morris fountain which has been dry for the past two years. I looked in vain for the savings accumulated following the closing of Bexley Council Tramways one hundred years ago. I wonder how long the present crew will keep the old fountain on the books?
Councillor Howard Marriner was keen to bring to the fore the dog fouling problem in his ward and cabinet member Gareth Bacon said yet again that the dog warden contract was abandoned because the fines didn't get anywhere near meeting operational costs. Maybe there was something wrong with the contract but it’s an interesting concept that absolutely everything must be measured by cost. Logically would that spell the eventual end of civilisation?
Baconesque logic will also ensure a £25,000 a year saving on “Public Protection” otherwise known as Food Sampling and Air Quality Monitoring. If the horse meat doesn’t get you the diesel particulates will. Another Baconism was that the closure of town centre toilets had “no ill effect”. Councillor Malik was not impressed and will probably not be alone.
Councillor Munir Malik went on to refer to the dishonest parking charge comparison with the centre of Greenwich and said it might more usefully have been made with Eltham right on the Bexley border where free parking is available. He not only didn’t like Bexley’s high parking costs but also objected to penalty charges being increased by stealth due to a rebanding exercise. Cabinet member Gareth Bacon said that happened a year ago as if that was somehow an excuse. Munir said it all contrived to make life more difficulty for Bexley businesses.
Without a hint of irony council officer Jacqueline Beckett moved into Agenda Item 8 and her pet subject which is encouraging new businesses to come to the borough. In full self-congratulatory mode she said Bexley compares well with local averages when it comes to ensuring residents are qualified to compete for available jobs. (20th in London for ‘Talent’ according to the recent Santander survey.) Councillor June Slaughter drew attention to recreational adult education classes that had largely gone by the board.
During the entire meeting only councillors Marriner, Slaughter, Waters, Langstead and Malik opened their mouths and the other five committee members present stared into space. Councillor Ray Sams looked close to being asleep and I wouldn’t criticise him for that. He didn’t appear to have a copy of the Framework either so perhaps like me he was finding it hard to keep up.
Whilst chairman Cheryl Bacon did not appear to be in a particularly antagonistic mood she did not forget that councillor Malik must be humiliated whenever possible. Councillors will often set the scene for a question by prefacing it with a long drawn out statement and that can be beneficial to any member of the public who may not be fully up to speed with the subject. Councillor June Slaughter was the prime exponent of that technique last night and I personally see nothing wrong with it. Neither did Mrs. Bacon even when Mrs. Slaughter announced she was going to do exactly that again. However when councillor Malik didn’t come out with a question with his first breath he was stopped in his tracks by a belligerent Cheryl. We were treated to a debate on whether Standing Orders permitted statements to be made at Scrutiny Committee meetings. Mr. Malik was certainly the moral victor while Cheryl acted tough and sounded pathetic.
Jane Richardson, Deputy Director for Regeneration raced through her list of achievements which she admitted failed to meet expectations for affordable new housing. This disappointed councillor Malik who considered a disproportionate number of more expensive dwellings was a form of gerrymandering. Bexley’s very own Dame Shirley Porter, councillor Linda ‘Biffa’ Bailey said this was “a load of rubbish” and perhaps for once in her life she was right.
The Agenda item of most interest to the average resident might be that from April 1st this year Bexley is to lose control of its parking services team. One less thing for quarter million pound man Will Tuckley to worry about. Bromley council will run the show and the total staff complement will drop from 39 to 27. Bexley staff who retain their job will continue to work for Bexley council but do their work in Bromley - or possibly at home.
Councillor Malik asked if there was any sort of get out clause if things didn’t work out. The answer was that a break had been engineered in for three and a half years time when Bexley’s existing NSL contract comes up for renewal.
At 21:13 chairman Cheryl Bacon took advantage of her own personal get out clause and we all filed out. Not a lot the wiser.