The long awaited fight for Old Farm
Park began in earnest with a question from councillor Joe Ferreira (Labour, Erith) while councillors opposite were, as
you can see, enraptured by his and subsequent arguments.
Joe wanted to know what the cabinet thought of the worry that once a park is sold, the land is gone for ever. He also noted with relief that Old Manor Way playground had been saved but quoting councillor Craske’s oft repeated assertion “when something comes out something must go in” asked what that something was.
Leader Teresa O’Neill failed to invite councillor Craske to respond which was a cunning move but I would suggest that Old Manor Way was one of Bexley council’s elaborate Aunt Sallies.
Deputy Director Toni Ainge has already said that council staff had assessed the land’s suitability for development and it would be a very incompetent council officer who missed the sewers, the multiple manhole covers, the dene holes and mineshafts. The fact that Conservative councillors took up the cudgels vigorously on residents’ behalf at possible risk to their reputations locally if they failed, and eighty year old council documents which placed difficulties in the path of any sale were miraculously found, suggests either a put up job or a council officer who should be shown the door.
Councillor Rob Leitch (Conservative, Sidcup) was invited to speak next. He covered his back first as would any councillor hoping to progress under Bexley’s political dictatorship and he “would stress that I absolutely accept the harsh financial realities we face as a council and I am absolutely committed to my Conservative colleagues to come up with as many alternatives as possible”.
Thus hopefully smoothing his path the “however” word made its appearance.
“Less than a week ago at full council residents presented a petition of 2,500 signatures, and remember it was the people who put us here” and he was then drowned out by the applause.
“The key message from residents was that once land is sold it is impossible to get it back and therefore it is similar to the argument made for the use of reserves.”
Sharpening his dagger his message reached its climax; “I was expecting to spend the last weekend sifting through a hefty document of the technical evaluation, looking for strengths and weaknesses in the case put forward” but the whole document consisted of “just 270 odd words”.
He was very disappointed as the whole borough should be. There was “very little analysis”. It is essential that residents have the full story and with total transparency before being consulted, would be the simplest summary of his concluding remarks.
Rob Leitch was deservedly cheered to the rafters by Old Farm and Splash Park campaigners alike.
Councillor June Slaughter (Conservative, Sidcup), a still occasionally practising solicitor, adopted a more analytical approach to putting her head in the noose.
June was also disappointed by the 270 word appraisal of the proposed sale. The cabinet member’s promise was “I will be publishing the details of the report in full for anyone to see. Nothing will be kept secret or hidden in order to ensure openness and transparency” but the report is “so limited that it raises more questions than it gives answers”.
It says nothing about “the site abutting a Grade II Nature Conservation area” and it fails to mention the London Wildlife Trust recommendations.
Councillor Slaughter suggested the council may have deliberately delayed publication of a wildlife review until after the proposed sale went out for consultation. You can understand why leader O’Neill’s eyes were aiming daggers in June’s direction. It really is worth enlarging this one to see her scowl in all its ugly glory.
The report made “no reference to the council’s open spaces policy”, she said in a voice not entirely free of implied sarcasm. Maybe I should offer June a guest writing spot. I can imagine that Bexley Tories’ Kangaroo Court will be reconvened shortly.
But June wasn’t finished. “Bexley has the fourth lowest percentage of green space out of the 19 Outer London boroughs”. (Department for Communities and Local Government figures.)
No summary could do June total justice so here is her speech in full.
16·1 megabytes of my web space June (.mp3 & .ogg), but you are worth it!
The by now very sour faced chairman quickly asked councillor Craske to rescue her from this
onslaught of home truths.
All he could come out with was a repetition of the assertion that all they were doing tonight was putting the proposals out for further consultation. He regretted that the response rate to consultations was “so small” and repeated that he was not going to make any comment beforehand, he had no prior interest in the consultation result “one way or the other”. A delightfully ambiguous response. Bexley council never does seem to be interested in consultation results.
What is councillor Craske going to do when the public votes decisively against selling Old Farm Park?
Members of the public were not happy with his question dodging and said so.
Deputy Director of Leisure and Parks Toni Ainge (£82,602 p.a. plus 20·6% pension contribution and 32 days leave) was invited to defend her 270 word technical report. She said it was only a summary. She confirmed that June Slaughter’s Wildlife Report was not ready for publication after 18 months “of process”.
Director Paul Moore said the report “would not adversely impact on the proposals”.
Councillor Stefano Borella (Labour, North End) reminded everyone that all the Conservatives, even councillors Leitch and Slaughter, had already voted in council for all the sites to be considered for disposal. Stef is a very naughty boy, he knows full well that dissension in the ranks is not allowed.
Like councillor Ferreira before him, Stefano asked what was going to replace Old Manor Way on the list and like Joe he got no answer.
If Old Farm Park is saved “residents all over the borough will be very nervous about that”, the big question being would residents vote to save Old Farm Park without knowing if their own local park would be for the chop instead. Cock up or part of a cunning ‘bias the consultation’ strategy?
Leader O’Neill said that Stefano’s question was invalid “because there is nothing out yet”. Is that dementia or deception? Old Manor Way is definitely out.
A member of the public who corrected a similar statement from councillor Craske was asked to be quiet.
Deputy leader Alex Sawyer said that no site on the list “was more important than any other” which presumably explains why some have provoked vigorous protests and others barely a whimper. Politicians would be well advised to engage brain before opening mouth.
As if to apologise for the statement he immediately followed it with “politicians are not right all the time” and then made another big mistake. He suggested in front of those who had presented a 2,500 signature petition that people do not respond when requested.
The public did not like that either and were again told to be quiet.
Sawyer said that if the park is not sold there would be “no further playground provision in the borough”. Presumably Sawyer Junior would have to play with Mummy in Witham in future.
In Bexley “there would be no one to check if someone had left a razor blade on a slide or if a screw was loose”. Things were getting desperate now. Perhaps there has been a screw loose all along.
“Across the borough border beyond Shooters Hill [Greenwich] the grass is three to four feet high, that is what will happen to open spaces in this borough“.
The audience began widespread giggling while once again Alex trotted out his favourite “none of us came into politics to cut service” line. After a last ditch attempt to make amends for a succession of faux pas by praising the members of the audience for “getting off their backsides and coming along” he promptly sat down on his.
Labour leader Alan Deadman brought up the ‘something in something out’ question again and where his two able lieutenants had failed, met with a modicum of success. Director Paul Moore admitted “there was not a fallback list at this point in time”.
Councillor Chris Beazley (UKIP, St. Michaels) suggested the council should encourage “some sort of voluntary group to maintain the parks”.
This went down very well with the audience and even councillor Craske’s response did not pour too much cold water on it, in fact he eventually got around to saying he “absolutely agreed”. Anything that might help bring the session to an end, but the suggestion will not actually raise a penny for his gaping black hole.
Chris Beazley was also keen to know where the consultation would be advertised. Toni Ainge said it would be advertised in all the usual places. A member of the audience suggested the Bexley Magazine would be a better place than the back pages of the News Shopper, poorly distributed and the Legal Notices little read.
Councillor Craske appeared to suggest that the council website was good enough but a restless audience made him difficult to hear.
The leader said it had been “a very good debate” and wrapped it up with a quick cabinet vote as soon as she could. Unanimous of course.
As the Splash Park debate commenced an amazing thing happened. All the Old Farm protesters noisily trooped out. Do they not think there might be strength in numbers? The Splash Park people have supported them on their Facebook page and supported them in the council chamber but the reverse seems to be far from true. When Bexley council has divided the opposition and ruled maybe they will regret their selfishness.