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Bonkers Blog July 2015

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3 July (Part 2) - At the Resources Committee meeting with insufficient resources

Councillor Steven Hall may have drawn the short straw when chairmanships were being handed out. The very words ‘People’ and ‘Places’ almost guarantee a lively debate for anyone interested in what is going on around town. On the other hand ‘Resources’ sounds a bit too heavy going and often the meeting is.

Steven HallOn Wednesday evening the sun must have got to me because I went to the Civic Offices expecting to listen to the Audit Committee at work and was directed to the main chamber where it was immediately obvious that a much bigger meeting was on the point of starting. As a result I was without my long lens and worse was that I had arranged another appointment for 9:15.

The meeting once again erred towards the boring end of the spectrum and as is often the case I wondered how councillors remain alert. Many of them do thus proving that being a councillor is not always the sinecure one might imagine.

There are of course always exceptions to any rule. One of chairman Hall’s first announcements was to say that vice-chairmen Andy Dourmoush and Maxine Fothergill would not be making any sort of report. Both are recipients of leader Teresa O’Neill’s largesse introduced last year as compensation for her wrecking the established format of scrutiny meetings. £750 per meeting each is the going rate for doing nothing. Councillor Hall said that no reports will be the new norm.

Councillor Fothergill was nevertheless kept quite busy because her car had unfortunately broken down on the way to the meeting. She is absent from the picture below because she spent a good part of the meeting nipping outside to use her phone. I hope she got home OK.

New committee member councillor June Slaughter (Conservative, Sidcup) was the first Tory to ask a question or more correctly make a suggestion. She wanted to see a report on how well the General Election arrangements went. The chairman agreed to have one added to the next Agenda.

Councillor Rob Leitch (Conservative, Sidcup) had noticed that £335,000 of projected savings for this year had slipped behind schedule and asked the Finance Director to comment. After a long delay she said that she had been working on “a funding gap of £30 million for future years” and 98% of 2015/16’s target (£14·8m.) was secure but if the 2% did slip she was looking for alternative savings.

Councillor Gill MacDonald (Labour, Belvedere) was sad to note that 28% of savings for 2015/16 was to come from Adults’ Services at a time when the population is aging. A thoughtful Ms. Griffin eventually began her answer with a reminder that the cuts had been agreed by the council and went on to say that Adults’ Services represented the largest part of the budget. Then, to wrap things up, she said that the cut had been agreed by the council in March.

Substitute member Mabel Ogundayo (Labour, Thamesmead East) referred to the 10% saving target for 2015/16 in Children’s Services. She was told that all of it would come from efficiency savings.

Councillor John Husband (Labour, Lesnes Abbey) wanted to know what consequences may have arisen from the two day a week closure of Erith Town Hall. Ms. Griffin said she “hadn’t seen any particular issues” but is “continuing to monitor”. Savings are on course to reach £70,000 a year.

Labour leader Alan Deadman (North End) was concerned about the degree of cuts to staff in HR and Legal, it could lead to the council being mismanaged. The chairman reminded him that the cuts had been made some time ago and cabinet member Don Massey said that as the council reduced in size so must the core departments.

Councillor Daniel Francis made his fourth - or maybe it was his fifth - intervention by referring to the possible merger of back office facilities with Newham and Havering. He was congratulated for having found the Romford Recorder’s report, I suspect he spotted it somewhere else. He was told that those negotiations were at an extremely early stage (a Memorandum of Understanding) but that some functions in Bexley now require less than one specialist post and the possibility of mergers must be examined. As many as 21 back office services could be merged.

Councillor Francis slipped in for the umpteenth time a complaint that the scheduling of meetings too often makes effective scrutiny impossible. His complaint fell on stony ground as it always does.

Councillor Husband referred to one of the biggest savings (£1·2 million) listed under cabinet member Linda Bailey’s Regeneration and Growth portfolio. Chairman Hall ruled that Strategic Planning & Regeneration Resources was not a resource for the Resources Committee.

The plan is to make all non-statutory functions self-financing and despite the Chairman’s ruling that Regeneration Resources were not relevant to the Resources Committee, the Finance Director commented.

She said a lot of the relevant teams work towards bringing inward investment to the borough. Greater flexibility from staff with appropriate skills could further enhance investment levels and that would pay for the services.

The Status Report (a collection of cross London statistics produced by the organisation known as London Councils) came in for the usual criticism. The problem is that it is always out of date and incomplete. It was alleged that it was inaccurate too because London councils are not compelled to submit their results and figures. Naturally councils that score badly are inclined not to submit any figures. Councillor Louie French (Conservative, Falconwood & Welling) said it was not worth the paper it was written on - especially now that it is printed grey on grey as councillor Slaughter remarked with a repeat of her complaint from the night before.

Cabinet member Don Massey said that some councils deliberately duck out and do not play ball with their submissions to the Status Report.

London Councils is an organisation of which Teresa O’Neill O.B.E. is the vice-chairman. Out of date. Behind the times. Erroneous.

Councillor Mabel Ogundayo asked a question relating to agency staffing levels in Children’s Services. Chairman Hall ruled that this HR related question was not appropriate to his committee but fortunately the Finance Director offered a brief response. The poor figures “will take quite some time to change”. The future will be “challenging”. “I don’t think we can be above average in everything any longer given our financial situation”.

At this point I had to leave having muddled my dates and double booked evening appointments. My intention was to complete this report by reference to the webcast. Unfortunately whilst my own recording made in a corner of the room comes through loud and clear the council’s webcast is, depending on speaker, at too low a volume for me to hear and it fails to make clear what happened during the surprise event that took place soon after my departure - apart from the amusement registered on Alison Griffin’s face.

It is evident that two proposals for future Sub-Committees were offered, one from Labour and another from the Conservatives, however councillor Francis proposed that both were taken on board.

This so bamboozled the assembled councillors that some of them believed they would be voting against their own proposal if they voted for Daniel Francis’ dual approach, which if lost would have resulted in separate votes. However it was passed by five votes to two (councillors Pollard and Leaf) with the remaining Tories abstaining in utter confusion. (This paragraph only obtained from a cooperative councillor.)

In some ways I find this a shame. I can never again report that Labour proposals are always rejected with a 100% block vote. A double blow because only the night before I lost the right to say that all public consultations, delegations and petitions are ignored, though the whole Splash Park story has yet to come out. At least not on BiB. You don’t really think that councillor Craske has metamorphosed into Santa Claus do you?

You may have noticed that a high proportion of questions originate from Labour sources. Those featured above are chosen subjectively on their supposed wider interest, if a proper count was undertaken the proportion might be very different. It would most likely be even higher than what may be seen above. There is no doubt about which party is most prepared to allow things to pass unchallenged. The docile majority party.


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