There was another Public Realm Scrutiny Committee meeting last night and when I entered the council chamber at 19:17 there were four of the usual suspects already there, plus two Labour candidates for the forthcoming election and two ladies who were I believe wearing Bexley council staff badges. The reason that may be worth mentioning is that no Agendas were available and as far as I could tell only four people had one. That is barely legal. Fortunately Mick Barnbrook gave me his. Only one more visitor arrived later.
The first hour of the 102 minute meeting was taken up by the Bexleyheath Business Improvement District Manager blowing his own trumpet - extremely loudly. To be fair it was probably the most entertaining presentation I have ever heard in the council chamber. Non-stop self-promotion with a bit of shopping promotion thrown in for good measure. I couldn’t bring myself to dislike it or the speaker but probably not everyone will agree that everything is as wonderful as he portrayed. Clearly a born showman but probably not my first choice when buying a used car. Credit where it is due, most definitely slick and enthusiastic and a breath of fresh air among the dead wood that surrounded him.
The man of the moment was councillor Ian Payne, former deputy mayor of Bromley and the following is a little of what he had to say. I doubt it does his jokes justice, some were rather good, especially those at Bexley council’s expense and he did actually use the pun “No Payne, no gain”. No shrinking violet is our Ian.
He began by saying that Bexleyheath Business Improvement District had “a great partnership” with Bexley council and joked - I think - that he charged for having his photograph taken and even more if audio was recorded. He found what was happening in Bexleyheath to be “exciting because of the vision of the council. Bexley council had always committed itself to the town centres; to Welling, to Sidcup, to Bexleyheath and Erith”. However he went on to say that for practical reasons his job was confined strictly to the centre of Bexleyheath; so presumably his promotional work must to some extent be to the detriment of the other places.
Businesses in the BID area pay 1·25% of their business rate to fund its activities, the money being collected by Bexley council. It adds up to about £280,000 but the BID has invested closer to £500,000 in Bexleyheath town centre in the past two and a half years.
• A Christmas lights policy. Traders now accept that it is a bill that they should pay, not the taxpayer.
• The average footfall in 2010 was between 25,000 and 30,000 and now it was - oh dear. Mr. Payne didn’t say.
• Remembrance Day is now celebrated in the town centre.
• Two police officers have been funded who remain in the town centre come what may. No secondment to other duties. Crime is down 17%, the criminals “have gone to Bromley and we are quite happy with that”.
• Millions of pounds of investment has been poured into Bexleyheath by incoming businesses. Nine businesses have opened along the regenerateed Broadway since December.
• Shrove Tuesday pancake races have helped to bring in hundreds of shoppers.
• Easter weekend nationally was down 1·9% for the retail trade but Bexleyheath was up 9%. Mr. Payne claimed the credit for himself. It may have been tongue in cheek.
• The BID funded the Easter free parking, there was no loss to Bexley council, so don’t let Bexley Tories fool you when you read in their election leaflets that it was all down to their generosity.
• “The Big Dance Bus was great”. People dancing in the square creates atmosphere.
• Continental markets have been introduced but not as great a success as was hoped. The prices are too high but there will be another in June.
• The Olympic flame was diverted from Arnsberg Way to Broadway at the request of the BID.
• The Diamond Jubilee bust of the Queen. “The only one in the country, the Commonwealth, the universe!” All the money being raised through voluntary contribution.
• The footfall has reached as high as 60,000. Ah, the missing figure at last.
• There were two Broadway Christmas trees last year.
• There is to be NFC coding on shop doors. That's Near Field Communication, so swipe your smart phone over the sticker and go to the company’s website. A first for the UK.
• Morrisons chose Bexleyheath for their kitchen and chefs display. The only town other than Birmingham, Glasgow and Manchester to be chosen. It received more custom than the display in Manchester City Centre.
• The few market traders on Broadway are to be compelled to do their business from within BID gazebos to make everything look neat and tidy. “If they don’t like it they can go to Dartford.”
• January footfall is up 2·5% compared with last year, February 12·5% and March 11% and the first week of April 9%. “The average being 3·32%.” (I don’t follow that arithmetic either.)
• The national average vacancy rate for shops is 16%, in Bexleyheath it is 6%. 14 empty shops.
I must commend Mr. Payne on being the clearest speaking voice recorded so far and the first not to bore me half to death while listening to the recorded presentation again. Very slick but still not absolutely sure that is a good thing. I think I may have almost been won over but did the councillors have any killer questions?
A microphoneless councillor Colin Tandy was first in line and with a complaint too. He and his wife thought the walkway from Highland Road past Sainsburys to T-Max was always filthy. Why didn’t the BID keep it clean? Mr. Payne had the answer at his fingertips. Because that piece of land is owned by Bexley council. “And the square is mucky” he said, apparently keen to rub salt into the wound.
Mr. Payne went on to say that “one of the cut backs, sorry one of the savings, the council made was to cleaning because it is not part of the statutory duty. We are just about to invest in a deep clean”. The BID is going to buy a chewing gum removal machine.
Councillor June Slaughter wanted to know if all businesses had to contribute to the BID and the answer was “only those with business rates above £12,500”. There have been no outright refuseniks but a few traders in real trouble have been allowed reduced payments.
Labour councillor Margaret O’Neill wanted to know what responsibility Ian Payne had to the satellite towns, mentioning Erith in particular. Chairman Cheryl Bacon interjected that it was not an appropriate question but the irrepressible Ian Payne answered anyway. “No dealings at all, nor should there be as I am paid by the Bexleyheath partnership.”
Councillor Seán Newman commented on the footfall being up by 9%; it was not lost on him that the comparison was with the regeneration chaos of a year ago. What was the impact of the resurfacing when local business were putting signs in windows saying “we are closing because of this scheme”? “You painted a very rosy view of Bexleyheath but it is not one that I recognise.”
The problem was, Mr. Payne said, that “some businesses do not do their homework” and proceeded to blame them for their own misfortune and berate the News Shopper for suggesting Bexleyheath was closed. There was some acceptance that the 9% year on year improvement might be road works related.
A Public Realm meeting can never be complete without councillor ‘I can do what I like’ Bailey launching a personal attack on councillor Seán Newman. This time she accused him of having an uncle who sits on the Executive Board of the BID. What she hoped to achieve by that or of what relevance it is I have no idea, however Seán got the better of her by denying the existence of any uncles anywhere.
Linda Bailey, having brought a more interesting than usual meeting down to the expected level of debate, the chairman decided enough was enough and moved on to the next Agenda item. There was little of interest there and what there was will be reported another time. Maybe the announcement that Hadlow Road Sidcup is due to reopen on 16th May, a mere ten weeks behind the original schedule, will be of interest to some.
Note: At no time did Mr. Payne define footfall. It clearly wasn’t being done in the way I researched on the web and from what he said it could just be the number of people to be seen on Broadway in a month.