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Bonkers Blog February 2014

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5 February (Part 2) - The Finance Scrutiny Committee - 4th February 2014

Philip ReadCouncillor Philip Read is usually a half decent chairman, especially when compared with the total incompetents like Cheryl Bacon. However this time I found myself wishing that he would get a firmer grip. The amount of Tory waffling was almost unbelievable. If you assume that a Scrutiny Committee is there to scrutinise, a logical extension of that is that they ask probing questions. No Tory did so, they praised the council’s achievements, they praised each other and they repeated what the Chairman had already said, Councillor Maxine Fothergill twice chipped in with comments which showed she wasn’t paying attention, resulting in worthless repetition, and she added absolutely nothing to the collective knowledge store. A total waste of space.

The meeting started well enough, Philip Read welcomed everyone, members of the public included, and told them that they were free to record and photograph events if they wished. Then he ran through the standard rigmarole about his power to prohibit photography if any member of the public objected. It was perhaps a little over the top given that the only members of the public present were Nicholas Dowling, John Watson and myself, all of whom had pressed Bexley council to adopt government guidelines on recording. No one attempted to take a photograph, no one had brought a camera.

Soon afterwards a lady I failed to recognise sat in the gallery. After the meeting she told me she had been selected to represent the Labour party in Crayford next May. She was I think as shocked by the display of amateurism as I was after my first council meeting in 2010. She thought she could do better than that and I agree, it would not take much to do better than that.

Once again the sound system was dreadful causing much straining of ears, the chairman who was furthest from me came over quite well but it is fortunate that the mumblers and those with nothing worthwhile to say are generally one and the same. Why don’t they switch on the speakers in the public gallery?

Within seconds of the meeting start we were on to Agenda Item 5. Unfortunately most of the statistics which should have been available for discussion were not. Not Bexley council’s fault as it happens, a cock up by ‘London Councils’. Just to rub things in, councillor Munir Malik spotted a discrepancy in the figures that were available. We moved on swiftly to the next Agenda Item.

Item 6, Budget and Capital Programme, gave councillor Maxine Fothergill the opportunity to say she was “delighted”. Maybe she meant ‘benighted’ which would be more appropriate.

Councillor Craske also failed to ask a question. His comments were barely audible but he said something about how pleased he was that the recent consultation on the budget proposals resulted in 65% of residents expressing support for cuts. This, like most of what Craske says, may not be entirely true. He gets to I still don’t know where the 65% comes from.

The number must be official council policy because deputy council leader Campbell answered one of Munir Malik’s questions with a reference to 65% and the admission that the proportion of residents responding was “tiny”. Councillor Malik is one of those rare beings who understands that proper scrutiny requires questions to be asked, not just expressions of delight.

Munir also asked if the council was satisfied it had the budget to do something lost to my ears and my recorder. Councillor Campbell must have heard because he answered the question with a reprimand about making political points and a reference to having made £65 million in savings. It was £100 million only last week but never mind. Campbell said he was entirely happy with his record.

Councillor Malik asked about the possibility of cancelling some contracts and Campbell responded by saying that all the present problems were caused by “the mess created by the last Labour administration”, which I assume he does not consider to be a political point.

Councillor Colin Tandy was another Tory who made no effort to question the cabinet member. Instead he said he wanted to endorse what Campbell had said and to praise the Conservative Chancellor who had saved this country from becoming “another Portugal or Spain or whatever” and he was “glad I am not a Frenchman”. I am sure every Frenchman alive must echo that sentiment. After telling us he is getting almost no interest on his savings he eventually sat down. Thank goodness for small mercies.

Maxine Fothergill then said something of absolutely no relevance whatsoever.

Colin CampbellItem 7 was the cabinet member’s report. The new (ex-Woolwich) HQ is only two weeks behind schedule and it has provided “enormous financial savings”. The Archives have been saved and the Mayor’s allowance will be cut by not sending him/her on any more out of borough jaunts. That was about it really apart from a repeat of the obligatory and probably spurious ‘65% support for cuts’ claim.

Craske dodged questioning but instead compared Bexley's new HQ allegedly costing nothing and Newham’s £111 million for their new palace.

The almost lone source of questions, the soon to be missed, Munir Malik asked how much capital was raised through the disposal of redundant buildings. Councillor Campbell declined to answer. I wonder why?

Councillor Alan Deadman decided to thwart councillor Malik’s ambition to be the only councillor to ask a question all evening and recklessly asked what part of the Archive Service might still be moved to Bromley. Campbell thought that all the archives and backroom services “will remain in this borough, but with a staffing reduction”.

Item 8 was opened by a microphoneless councillor Colin Tandy muttering something about “the budget strategy being just about as risk averse as it is possible to be” - or something like that. Still no Tory questions and a slightly bored sounding chairman thanked Tandy and moved on. Undeterred, councillor Tandy came back with a comment about the council investing in government backed banks.

Agenda Item 9 is entitled ‘Overcoming the Economic Downturn’ and the chairman commented that a new title might be in order. Councillor Peter Craske said the 26% reduction in the borough’s unemployed was “very welcome”. Still no questions. Maxine Fothergill said the title was “depressing”. Err, yes, that’s what the chairman just said.

Councillor Deadman asked if the 26% was “due to people going back to work or people coming off benefit”. The Director of Finance said he was merely repeating figures given to him and he “just doesn’t know the answer to that”. Councillor Malik pushed his luck somewhat by asking what proportion of the borough’s residents were on zero hours contracts. Mr. Ellsmore did not, probably could not, know that either, though speaking to Chris Taylor’s care agencies might provide a strong clue.

Councillor Tandy thought it was relevant to chip in with the comment that Chancellor George Osborne had said “we are not there yet”. I was beginning to think that Colin Tandy was not all there too. “Waitrose in Sidcup” he said, “was a lovely place to shop, I shop there most weeks”. Presumably they had a good offer on strong spirits when he last visited.

Tandy chipped in again, the chairman made a valiant attempt to stop him, but Tandy wasn’t going to stop. He wanted to tell us that a Disney style Theme Park was due to open in Dartford. Presumably a Disney Theme Park, almost by definition, appeals to small minds. Someone pointed out it was not being built in Dartford, I think it may be Gravesham but without net access I’m unable to check.

The chairman then announced under Item 10 that the council’s budget strategy was pretty much on track. No one had any questions, even councillor Tandy had no comment.

The penultimate item was a report on Business Rates prepared by councillor Peter Craske. The word ‘excellent’ was bandied around a few times and Craske revealed that he had written to the Chancellor to ask that the Business Rate Relief Scheme be extended and George had agreed. There were no questions.

Item 12 was not discussed and the meeting was closed 51 minutes after it began. Not a single question from any Tory, what more proof do you need that Bexley is a one woman dictatorship and all public meetings are rigged beforehand?


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