There was something of a carnival atmosphere at last night’s Cabinet meeting.
Usually it consists of the eight members and a couple of councillor observers,
but we were treated to the entire gang of 63. Apparently there was to be a
Conservative Party knees up afterwards and they appeared to be in the mood for a
jolly. The opposition planned a similar more sober function for themselves. I
noticed no frivolity there.
Members of the public present numbered three and a desk had been set out in accordance with the legislation for the use of press and bloggers. However just as the meeting was due to start and I was about to make my move it was occupied by two people wearing Bexley council badges. I made do with a notebook perched on my knee which in some ways is preferable.
Taking centre stage and a beacon among a sea of drab dark suits was council leader Teresa O’Neill resplendent in dazzling pink. She began with a reference to the postponement from last week. Her explanation implied that it was her brilliant idea. She said it “was the right thing to do” and because it placed the Cabinet meeting only two days before Full Council she asked members to resist asking questions and “keep your powder dry till Wednesday”. Cannon fire tomorrow? Oh, goody!
The leader then announced with some relish that council tax will be “frozen for the fourth year running” while those who have to pay it will know that she really meant to say third. More accurately she said it was “residents” money and “saving it is paramount in what we do”. No mention of the tripling of the charge for parking outside their own houses or her refusal to countenance paying her favoured staff any less than at the sixth highest rate in the country.
Finance Director Mike Ellsmore was left with very little to say. Budgeting gets “increasingly challenging” he said as though it would be news to struggling households, but nevertheless he had managed to put about £4 million into reserves. It makes sense. Spending has gone down just a little, tax take is similar; put the difference in the piggy bank. Councillor Colin Campbell said it was all down to his “sound financial management”. So far so sensible; then the village idiot stood up.
Councillor Craske had perhaps been on the happy juice too early because he started comparing Bexley council with Liverpool and our very own Derek Hatton said that the Liverpudlian council forecast that freezing council tax would cause “riots in the streets”. “Are you worried?” he asked councillor Campbell. Councillor Campbell smiled back at the loon in a manner that I interpreted as dismissive.
Councillor Stefano Borella was concerned about a forecast budget shortfall of £8·5 million. Teresa O’Neill said “forward planning” would look after that.
Councillor Munir Malik had a list of questions and comments. “A freeze comes at a cost. What services have been lost to provide the luxury of a zero increase? Who is paying for this electoral bribe? What further bribes are coming? Residents are struggling with higher prices, fuel etc. What is the negative impact of frozen council tax on the local economy? Has the Cabinet made an assessment? There may not be riots but there will be hurt.”
It was such a long list I felt there was no way he would get anything but a quick fob off and I was right. After O’Neill made the mandatory reference to a £10 million deficit left by the last Labour council, Colin Campbell simply refused to answer any of the questions telling Munir he should do the research himself.
Cabinet member Gareth Bacon made some derogatory remarks about councillor Malik and his “monologue” but put his finger on what he believed to be a weakness in Munir’s argument. If people are struggling with a range of increasing prices how will putting up council tax rates help? With Council Tax Benefit withdrawn and everyone but a few pensioners having to pay it from April he is probably more right than wrong.
Environment Director Peter Ellershaw introduced the subject of river crossings. Bexley is in favour of more he told us and he wasn’t alone. Everyone wanted more but just not in our back yard. The “resurfacing of the fixed link proposal” was labelled “unfortunate”.
Councillor Gareth Bacon said for the umpteenth time that he favoured a new crossing at Silvertown and was against a fixed link at Gallions Reach. He repeated all the tired old arguments about all the traffic having to go up Knee Hill and said a bridge would do little to regenerate the borough. Presumably the favoured ferry will do even less. He also revealed that both leader O’Neill and GLA member James Cleverly had privately lobbied Boris Johnson against a bridge at Gallions Reach.
In response to councillor Borella who said that tolls were a jobs tax on South East London, Bacon indicated he was not wildly enthusiastic about tolls and that he would favour not only a Docklands Light Railway extension to Bexley but also a new road bridge; so long as it wasn’t in Bexley. A bridge at Woolwich connecting the North and South Circular roads was his favoured solution. Not a bad idea if they can find room for the ramps. Why wasn’t it included in the consultation paper?
a long, often repetitive but not uninteresting statement by cabinet member
Gareth Bacon, councillor Munir Malik rose to his feet to question “councillor
Bacon’s monologue”. What his question was to be we never discovered because
Controller O’Neill said use of the word monologue was “rude” and demanded that
Munir apologise for it. Munir said he didn’t think the M word was a rude one but
if councillor Bacon apologised for using the same word he would too. This was not
to be. O’Neill behaved like the petty dictator she is and said that it was her
game and it was her ball and her daddy was bigger than Munir’s daddy so if she
said Munir wasn’t allowed to play then Munir couldn’t play. And so, not for the
first time, councillor Malik was not allowed to put the case for the people he
represents in Thamesmead.
Councillor Borella who was sitting alongside Malik attempted to ask the questions on his behalf but made the mistake of saying he didn’t think his colleague deserved to be called rude for borrowing Gareth Bacon’s word but the ball owner was having none of that and stomped off towards the exit with it tucked under her arm. So there!
O’Neill blew the whistle on her fiasco at 20:14 and the Tories headed off to their private party in high spirits led by the Pink Pinocchio.