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Bonkers Blog February 2015

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5 February - Same old doom and gloom

Last night’s Resources Scrutiny Committee meeting seemed to me a much more relaxed affair than the one three months ago, when the normally easy going chairman tended towards the officious, not something I would normally associate with councillor Stephen Hall. His is a relatively benign committee with, apart from the one who is well known to Greenwich police, not inclined to a surfeit of irrelevant political insults. They can go overboard on giving thanks for each other’s expertise though.
Committee

L-R: Tariq Bashir (Procurement), Graham Ward (Customer Relations), Maureen Holkham (Policy and Communications, Tony Allen (IT Services), Julie Southcott (Scrutiny Officer), Steven Hall (Chairman), Alison Griffin (Finance), Paul Moore (Customer Services), John Peters (Finance), Nick Hollier (HR Services).


The meeting was ten minutes longer than the last one at five minutes under three hours and observers in what passes for a gallery in the new chamber peaked at five. A councillor from each of the two main parties and three members of the public, two of whom had had enough and went home at the 80 minute mark.

I learned nothing fundamentally new by hanging on to the end. Cabinet member Gareth Bacon reiterated his well practised speech about the borough’s financial woes and how central government had chopped Bexley’s grant by a further 14%. He has cut expenditure in his own area of responsibility by 20% (£2·86 million).

Labour councillor Daniel Francis (Belvedere) queried why once again it was mainly the lower pay grades who were predicted to lose their jobs and Human Resources boss Nick Hollier agreed that “the majority of staff are on those lower grades so it follows from that that the preponderance of staff that might be affected by those proposals will be on the lower grades.” Very helpful.

Councillor Danny Hackett (Labour, Lesnes Abbey) had spotted in an Appendix to the Agenda that a disproportionate number of disabled people were lined up for the chop. Nick Hollier indicated that the figures were to provide an assessment of the situation to see if there was a need for “mitigation”. Danny’s later use of the slogan “Working for you, ignoring you” in connection with the sham consultation exercise was not well received by cabinet member Gareth Bacon who nevertheless went on to say that if no alternatives were put forward, ‘ignore you° he must.

Councillor Gill MacDonald (Labour, Belvedere) was concerned about some services being forced entirely on line - as well she might be. My near 95 year old aunt in Newham is now entirely cut off from council services and a phone call to the council’s main number (no longer shown on their website) merely redirects to the web. Councillor MacDonald was told by the cabinet member that Bexley’s services would never be 100% web based even though the Agenda clearly stated “Only on line contact will be available for some services”.

The bulk of the meeting was Agenda Item 9, the budget proposals, and cabinet member Gareth Bacon said the financial circumstances were the worst he could remember in his 17 years on the council. His aim was “to keep council tax increases as low as it is possible to do”.

As is all too often the case the tendency is for the most pain to be inflicted on the poorest in society. When councils took over the administration of council tax relief in 2013 Bexley proposed that residents on benefits would have to pay 15% of the tax due (nothing previously) and introduce the levy in three steps of 5%. This is to be extended to four steps so that the poorest people will contribute 20%, another £300,000 a year. The hardship fund, as already noted, will be done away with.

Bexley’s Voluntary Services Council will be asked to take on more responsibilities saving another £25k. and rewarded with a further cut to their grant.

The Citizens Advice Bureaux will be reduced from two to one. £30,000 saved mainly at the expense of the vulnerable.

The council’s IT provider whose contract expires in March 2016 has been asked to accept a smaller inflation based payment this year. £20,000 saved. Even the smallest of sums are under the spotlight, though Gareth Bacon did not foresee the loss of the web casting experiment. Director Paul Moore reminded him that it is subject to an evaluation in May. If Teresa likes it it will stay. Not all £20k’s are equal.

Other items of note were that the quarterly Bexley magazine has a net cost of about £35,000 a year and that no decision had yet been made on any proposed cut pending the consultation results and discussions in cabinet and council.

History suggests that the 1,821 budget consultation responses will inevitably be ignored. As councillor Bacon wryly said, he did “not expect people to say ‘brilliant’, you are taking money out of the budget, we’ve been waiting for that all our lives”. Everyone will be against the cuts but they are inescapable. No changes would be possible unless proposals are forthcoming for “alternative and equivalent savings”.

There is no denying he has a very difficult job, perhaps his predecessor should have had a better crystal ball, one less focused on getting re-elected.

Despite Teresa O’Neill dictating that two paid vice-chairmen be appointed to this committee, neither of them provided a report and in both cases did nothing beyond commenting on the brilliance of their colleagues. It’s another twenty odd thousand that could have been saved but Tory pockets are sacrosanct.

It is customary for me to report how bloody awful the sound system is but it was really quite good last night except for one thing which affects all the meetings arranged in that same way. The audience immediately behind the rear table hear the direct speech from those on the rear table and a moment later what comes from the loudspeakers at the far end of the room giving an echo effect. It may be just the one cabinet member's microphone but it makes him difficult to follow.

I may have considered attending the meeting close to being a waste of time; as is often the case, reading the Agenda would have taught me almost as much but what made it worthwhile was the icy stare from the lying Cheryl Bacon. If looks could kill! Maybe she has had a phone call from Plumstead nick.

 

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