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Bonkers Blog November 2015

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5 November (Part 4) - No 15 minutes of fame

MayorEvery three months Bexley council allows members of the public to ask it questions. Cabinet members don’t like it so there is a whole set of rules to negotiate before a question is deemed acceptable.

The rules are not as draconian as they used to be, until a couple of years ago any resident seeking to question Bexley council had to agree to having both his name and address published on the council’s website.

It was a big disincentive to anyone still living with parents etc. or less likely but possible, spouses who had escaped abusive partners. Leader Teresa O’Neill didn’t care about that but fortunately the Information Commissioner did. Within a couple of weeks of his office getting wind of it the practice was dropped.

The OBE had to hit back somehow but the best she could come up with was getting questioners to recite their question in full. Previously it had been taken as read. It may seem trivial but it helps to shorten question time and occasionally cheating the public of a few minutes out of their miserly hour a year can pay dividends to a council that prefers opacity to transparency. Last night may have been a case in point.

I was surprised at how many people believed I had broken my practice of reporting questions but never asking them, but the first questioner was Malcolm Wright who is a leading light in the Save Old Farm Park campaign. What’s two consonants between friends?

I’m surprised that any of that group still speak to me. While sharing their views on the subject I have been nothing but pessimistic about their prospects. I’ve seen Bexley council in action for far too long but some of my most negative comments have not been mine at all, they are quotes from private conversations with councillors.

If the Old Farm campaigners had stayed a little longer than they did they would have heard councillor Joe Ferreira (Labour, Erith) ask Teresa O’Neill if there was a Plan B in the event that the council voted against selling Old Farm Park. It was confirmed that there isn’t one but the campaigners are not going to go down without a fight and with luck they will help expose Bexley councillors for the shysters many of them are.

The mayor started her 15 minute timer…

…and after she wasted 14 seconds on pointless introductions, Malcolm’s first question was…
Malcolm Wright CraskeCouncillor Craske began by denying he made any such statement and continued with the well known tale of woe about Bexley’s dire financial situation. He said “the council had formally approved its budget last March and it was now being implemented. The 39 proposals put forward then were justified then and justified now“.

One wonders why the council ran its consultation over the summer if it had already justified the sale to itself. Craske said that the sale was a mere two hectares out of a park total of 623 and emphasised that no decision had yet been taken. The decision was not for him anyway it was the General Purposes Committee’s. And Pontius Pilate sat down looking very pleased with himself.

Four minutes and forty two seconds had elapsed since the Mayor lowered the chequered flag.

Mr. Wright asked as his supplementary question what the long term benefits of a sale would be and referred to possible debt repayment or capital investment. Councillor Craske said the money would go to neither of those things. The proceeds from the sale of two hectares would ensure the maintenance of the other 621. For ever presumably, in which case does that not imply putting all those millions into reserves?

The Mayor then invited Mr. Wright to put his second question and wasted another eleven seconds while she did the introductions all over again.

An email conversation between a Sidcup resident and the Head of Communications, confirmed that 'detailed background information' on the technical evaluation of the sites was missing from the 'Related Downloads' link on the Consultation page of the Council's website. Links to the site plans and technical evaluation were not added until 7 September - just 11 days before the consultation closed, meaning that residents did not have access to all information to make an informed decision. Even though there was an overwhelming, near 100% response against the Council's proposal from 1,361 responses. How valid does the Council believe the consultation was, given vital information was missing?

This looked like a killer question to me but councillor Craske said it wasn’t. He wasn’t in the slightest bit bothered about it and the consultation was “completely valid”. He repeated that it would be the General Purposes Committee that would make the final decision and Harry Houdini sat down looking very pleased with himself.

The supplementary question asked how councillor Craske planned to deal with the question of the 3,000 plus signature paper petition, a similar sized on-line one and the 1,361 responses “in a fair and democratic way”.

O'Neill Councillor Craske said he had read all the consultation responses and it was himself who authorised the release of their number and all the decisions had been made in public so it was all democratic. The logic of that escaped me. Does being able to watch in silence while the sheep obey the Great Dictator make for a democratic process? Probably it does in a first past the post electoral system. Teresa O’Neill is constantly crowing that she won the election and nothing else matters. She did so again last night.

Councillor Craske then repeated his General Purposes Committee hand washing routine.

Another questioner was Mrs. Tracey Bridge and the introductions were completed in only twelve seconds.

Mrs. Bridge asked…

What guarantees can the Council give to not mislead the public again with these and future budget problems, like they did with sale of parks and open spaces by implying that the money would be used to maintain what's left, and what they intend to sell once this money has gone?

Tracey BridgeCouncillor Craske claimed not to understand the reference to misleading. The policy, he said was very clear. “It was clear when it was set out in October, it was clear when it was set out in January, it was clear when it was set out at the budget” He repeated the story that two hectares would pay for maintenance of the 621. No other sites are being listed for disposal.

The supplementary question asked for an exact explanation of what the sale receipts would be used for as various stories had been circulating.

Craske’s answer was entirely predictable; the money is to be used for park maintenance. “It’s not going to be used for anything else at all.” But what happens when it runs out Mr. Craske?

Thirteen minutes and thirty seven seconds after she fired the starter’s pistol the Mayor declared that time was up.

The public was not amused.

Just over a minute later while introducing councillors’ question time the Mayor fired the same pistol straight into her foot.

It was still not fifteen minutes since the Mayor had set her question timer.

I have not seen the public so blatantly cheated since Mayor Val Clark played the same dirty game four and a half years ago.


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