The Places Scrutiny Committee is arguably the most consistently interesting
of the three farces. Melvin Seymour does an OK job as chairman, at least he has
never done anything I considered to be unfair or unduly biased, and the report
on Regeneration and Growth is usually worth hearing. What’s more it can be heard
thanks to Deputy Director Jane Richardson’s appreciation that the microphone in
front of her is for speaking into and not to be shoved to one side.
Some of the Tories seem to do that deliberately. Councillor Brian Bishop was sitting next to councillor Val Clark and Bishop came over as clear as a bell and the useless Clark was close to inaudible. The Labour councillors can be barely heard either but only when one is forced to sit behind them as was the case last night.
The new council chamber is an absolute disgrace for it failure to address the needs of the public. There is almost no chance of being able to catch out anyone watching the football as happened in Croydon on Monday.
The extra attraction last night was the Labour Group’s attempt to deflect the path of the Old Farm Park sale consultation process.
I wouldn’t have known about it except that Labour leader Alan Deadman wrote to some residents to make them aware of the additional Agenda item and one of them posted it on Facebook. It was repeated here on 5th December.
I was under the impression that every decent councillor is working for residents and part of that would be keeping them well informed; so when I heard on the grapevine that Alan Deadman had been taken aside by a senior Tory and told he was letting the side down I took it with a big pinch of salt. However, last night, I heard chairman Seymour confirm that the grapevine was indeed correct or at least on the right track. Councillor Melvin Seymour was “sad” that Alan Deadman had distributed his letter. It may be significant that the grapevine said that Alan’s critic was the same Tory who was alleged to have called Alan a cu…, well you know the rest.
Are the Tories losing it and becoming the even nastier party?
Labour’s supplementary Agenda item referred to the Summer consultation on the sale of four parks which asked the public to judge the merits of disposal based on the fact that their sale would provide one million pounds towards the maintenance of the remaining open spaces. The figure was wrong, it should have been £710,000 for all 27 (now 26) parks and not just the four parks of which Old Farm is the largest one.
The public may have seen £710k. for 26 parks as rather less attractive than a million for only four.
It was argued that the mistake rendered the consultation invalid but obviously Bexley’s Tories were not going to accede to that.
Chairman Seymour began by saying he believed Alan Deadman’s letter implied that the Scrutiny Committee had jurisdiction over the sale. I’ve read it again and still don’t see how, but that was his excuse for calling councillor Deadman’s decision to keep residents informed ‘sad’. He continued by saying much the same thing as I had been telling everyone who asked me what effect Alan Deadman’s letter would have.
He “took no pleasure in telling you“ the Scrutiny Committee had “no remit” to stop the statutory consultation, “however I have no option but to allow“ the Labour submission. Note the implied reluctance in the phraseology.
The council officers were asked to justify their use of misleading figures. First the facts; on park maintenance the council is looking to save £200,000 in 2016/17 rising to £800,000 in 2017/18. The £800,000 comes from “the anticipated capital receipts of ten million pounds”. The sale will avoid financing costs of 8%. That is 5% debt repayment provision (a legal requirement) and avoided interest of 3%. “Continuing grounds maintenance requires an overhead of £90,000“, hence the target savings of £710,000. “These figures were agreed by council last March.” The million pound figure was to allow for “potential overachievement on the land sale”. Carefully estimate a number, then casually inflate it.
It was confirmed that the consultation was wrong to have referred to the savings coming from the sale of four parks and not 27. Councillor Ferreira said that this error could leave the council open to a challenge.
Deputy director Toni Ainge whose difficulty with numbers is already well known said the council’s let out clause for not using the £710,000 figure is because she said “up to one million” which as excuses go is a pretty lame one. She made no attempt to explain away the four parks versus 27 or 26.
She said that even if the park sale produced a million pounds it still wouldn’t be enough to pay for ground maintenance elsewhere. In a further attempt to justify her mistaken arithmetic Ms. Ainge said those consultations were non-statutory, or to put it another way, she believed she could legally mislead the public without fear of any legal challenge.
For the statutory (current) consultation she had placed an advertisement in the News Shopper. There was no requirement for the council to make the information available in other places such as libraries and she had not done so. Members of the public were not impressed. In my road, more than 60 houses, the News Shopper distributor calls at only two. He has no idea why, but they are his instructions.
Councillor June Slaughter (Conservative, Sidcup) was invited to speak. She defended the right to question figures put out as part of a consultation exercise but she felt there was “a danger that we will lose sight of the main issues for opposing the sale of Old Farm Park. We should concentrate on the reasons we are opposing the sale. We should be encouraging as many people as possible to take part in the [current] consultation”.
Councillor Stefano Borella (Labour, North End) defended his leader’s decision to write to residents and like me, could not see that it did any more than encourage them to attend the evening’s meeting. (Around 40 had done so.)
Councillor Borella emphasised the need to put correct figures into consultations and those used had been “confusing”. Ms. Ainge repeated her lame excuse about “up to one million pounds”. An excuse for saying four instead of 26 or 27 still eluded her.
Councillor Seán Newman (Labour, Belvedere) added his weight to the argument. “The consultation was on a false premise and the responses cannot be accurate and the information put before cabinet cannot be accurate. How much would it cost the council to deal with the legal process if this was reviewed in some way?”
The lying councillor Cheryl Bacon said it was all a “red herring”. “Figures get changed all the time. It is disingenuous to suggest the consultation is faulted because of some variance on the figures. It doesn’t aid the debate. It is not for this committee to be dealing with the decision. The responses I have heard from Ms. Ainge have satisfied me.”
Councillor Joe Ferreira (Labour, Erith) circulated his Motion calling for the current consultation to be abandoned and to rerun the earlier one without the misleading figures for monetary gain.
Councillor Val Clark was the first to object but what she actually said was inaudible because she likes to keep at least three feet from the nearest microphone.
The lying Cheryl Bacon made her objections abundantly clear, she didn’t think the Motion should be accepted at all. Her justification was some nonsense to do with the use of the word disposal when no decision had yet been taken and she thought it would be better if the cabinet member took account of any problem with the consultation “when the final decision gets made”.
Committee vice-chairman councillor Nigel Betts, not the sharpest tool in the box, was even more petty objecting to the phrase “referring back”, when he said it hadn’t been referred in the first place. He was paid £750 for that interjection.
Councillor Cheryl Bacon attempted to throw a desperate spanner into the works by requesting a legal ruling from the Committee Officer that the Motion was unacceptable. The ruling went against her. She argued against that ruling and lost again.
Councillor Borella who appears to have a photographic memory of the arcane rule book said a Motion should not be debated or questioned until it was both proposed and seconded, and it certainly hadn’t been seconded at that stage.
The chairman was understandably getting fed up with the too-ing and froing and called for an immediate vote on the amendment.
Councillor Slaughter appears to have her arms folded. Councillor Aileen Beckwith sits on her hands.
The inevitable had happened. Nothing is going to deflect Bexley council from selling public amenities to the highest bidder. It started with the public toilets and it will go on until everyone is sufficiently pissed off with this council to chuck them out of office.