It’s not a week since the last Finance meeting
which Nicholas Dowling reported but last
night it was me who drew the short straw. I don’t think the council expected many
observers as there were only two copies of the Agenda provided for public use
and none at all of the ‘Performance Dashboard’ which made following all the
meeting in detail impossible.
The council was right to assume public apathy, I sat in solitary splendour and was welcomed to the meeting by councillor Philip Read. Philip is one of the better committee chairmen; if he hadn’t proved himself a vindictive wotsit by reporting blogger Olly Cromwell to the police for no reason and causing him to be flung in the cells for 24 hours by Bexleyheath policemen anxious to please their paymasters (†), I might be tempted to say Read is the best. Not that the competition is that great of course.
Even Read is not perfect. He made the standard announcement that I could not film the meeting for fear I might offend myself by getting into the field of view without giving myself permission.
Unlike Nicholas who enjoys analysing all the council’s figures I think I am qualified only to report the highlights. I waited seven minutes for the first of them which was a noisy disturbance on the stairs outside, raised voices etc. One of the Directors promptly closed the connecting door but not before I spotted the culprit. It was Chief Executive Will Tuckley.
Another was the bald statement on page 12 of the Agenda which said “Bexley was recently rated fifth in the country for best environment and infrastructure overall”. Councillor Colin Tandy who is not so doddering as Nicholas suggested wanted to know why and how and where the statement came from. None of the council officers nor the cabinet member knew, not even directors Ellsmore and Moore. I concede the parks are plentiful and nice but infrastructure? No Underground, no Thames crossing, no proper hospital. Surely there must be more than four boroughs nationwide who can do better than that. Councillor Seán Newman made a similar point but was rebuffed by train-spotter Tandy who said we had three railway lines to London and the A2, never mentioning that it leads only to a perma-jam at Blackwall tunnel.
Tandy also asked for elucidation of some staffing reduction figures; interestingly it said there would be a further reduction of eight posts when the BELL service ends at the end of July. I had heard it was being sold off in August.
Councillor Tandy, obviously in fine form, asked about the ratings for various Strategy 2014 projects which are graded red, amber or green to denote the success of their contribution to budget savings. “How far below green is amber?” He got no answer, it was all subjective based on the opinion of the project manager. The opportunities for fiddling were bandied about but Deputy Director Graham Ward said “it would be very difficult to put a formulaic approach in place”.
Councillor Craske, referred to a council sponsored poll which claimed “74% of our residents said they would recommend Bexley to friends or family” and wanted to know what the other 25% (sic) were thinking of. He said our retail occupancy rate was better than elsewhere too. 12% nationally and 8.7% in Bexley. Perhaps he has filled the gaps with betting shops. We have the best schools in the country too. Believe it if you like.
Councillor Maxine Fothergill wanted to know the average cost of keeping a family in temporary accommodation but she went home none the wiser.
Councillor Mike Slaughter wanted to know the fate of Lamorbey Baths and Director Mike Ellsmore said he would come back to him on that. Fortunately Colin Campbell rode to the rescue, saying he had a business interest in it and it was sold six months ago. He went on to say that the council owned more than 400 properties but the value of most had been realised years ago and were now leased for nominal annual sums.
Another useful piece of information from councillor Campbell is that he didn’t expect Bexley to benefit from Business Rates being increased with inflation (RPI). Government he forecast, would come along and snatch the income back through reduced grants. He was similarly realistic on Health spending. Bexley is bottom of the league in London and improving Children’s Services is proving to be very difficult as “good social workers do not grow on trees”.
Councillor Peter Craske wanted to make a political point by talking about an alleged Labour proposal to put all service charges on to the rates. Over councillor Newman’s protestations he indicated that council tax might go up by 17·5%. Councillor Tandy said that Croydon Council did something similar years ago which resulted in a typical Labour mess, as opposed to a typical Tory mess presumably. Craske also said that the council could sell all its car parks to raise money and help reduce council tax, they were under no legal obligation to provide parking spaces. Not sure if he was serious or just likes the sound of his own voice.
Councillor Slaughter is not easily duped and queried the claimed procurement savings on the cost of school meals. Council officer Tariq Bashir said it had been achieved through raising quality which if true should assure him of glory in some more worthy food related post. Slaughter was suitably sceptical as well he might be. Councillor Slaughter also noted the reduced costs of ferrying children to swimming lessons and implied that it was because schools could no longer afford to send children swimming. Or maybe he didn’t because he forgot to turn his microphone on.
Councillor Steven Hall wanted to know if the council had been able to ensure that the main contractor for the new Civic Centre takes on local firms for sub-contact work. Only influence was the answer, although not without some degree of success.
The meeting ended at 20:54.
† He was released on the orders of a judge.
This report is not in chronological sequence because I foolishly scribbled over the Agenda as well as the usual note book. Reassembling things would take more time than is available.