4 on the cabinet’s Agenda yesterday was entitled ‘To Consider the Outcome of the
Consultation Exercise for Four Open Sites and the Next Steps’. The consultation
was close to being 1,361 to nil against the Listening council so you will not be
surprised that it didn’t merit a mention. The cabinet emphasis was on why their fatuous slogan was being ignored again.
The Conservatives have presided over the run down of Bexley. Charges up, services cut, gardens and historical monuments abandoned, no public toilets, motorists persecuted and levying the 24th highest council tax in London. A position just as bad as when the much maligned Labour party left office in 2006.
Nevertheless Bexley Tories are still blaming their parlous financial state on Labour, apparently oblivious to the fact they have been running the show for nearly ten years and nationally for more than five. To borrow cabinet member Linda Bailey’s favourite phrase, it’s a bit rich.
It is easy to compile a list of things that have made Bexley a far less pleasant place to be now than ten years ago and very few in the reverse direction. A couple of town centres look a bit smarter and that is about it.
However we are where we are if I may borrow one of cabinet member Sawyer’s favourite platitudes too, and having backed themselves into a financial hole, there is only one way out. The civic equivalent of e-bay.
If you disregard the fact that Bexley council is impoverished because it refused to embrace growth, Tories putting their own seats before financial security and their mate George Osborne’s doubling of the national debt, then it could be argued that half the cabinet members made a reasonable job of explaining their predicament. It made them look like ostriches at times but the numbers they came out with were frighteningly real.
Council leader Teresa O’Neill began proceedings by reminding everyone that all the Conservatives had already voted in favour of all the budget proposals. 27 sites were named in the budget for possible disposal and five had been looked at. One, Old Manor Way, had fallen by the wayside earlier. It proved to be totally unsuitable for development and the council had pretended it didn’t know that. More likely they knew exactly what they were doing.
Another thing the Leader was at pains to point out is that there would be no decision on any sale at the meeting as this would be devolved to the General Purposes committee. A jolly band made up of two Labour, one UKIP, six nondescript Tory councillors and a Conservative Chairman. Passing the decision to them appeared to herald a classic ‘wasn’t me guv’ excuse by the council leader.
After Deputy Director Toni Ainge ran through the basic facts again and explained why Old Farm Park was “surplus” Alison Griffin the Finance Director repeated the usual bundle of bad news. The council is, despite numerous cuts, still facing a £34 million shortfall.
All the cabinet members had been through the excuses routine many times before so some are getting quite good at putting across their blinkered views. Cabinet member Don Massey said that the alternative to more cuts and sell-offs is a 55% council tax rise. Some of the park campaigners thought that would be a good idea. He invited ridicule by stating that the usage of Old Farm Park was “low”.
The renowned gambling man, Cabinet member Peter Craske chanced his arm too. Every part of the borough must play its part with the cuts and none can be exempted. He referred back to a 2011 edict by government that councils should sell surplus land, and any opinion other than his was “fantasy”.
“As is obvious“, he said. “you cannot save something once you have saved it. You cannot repeat savings”. That comment may not seem significant to you but I well remember councillor Craske arguing the reverse when he was last a cabinet member. For example, destroying the William Morris fountain was going to put £20,000 in the bank very year ad-infinitum. Perhaps he thought the closure of the tramways in 1935 was still paying dividends. Maybe he has been taking lessons from Ms. Griffin since then.
Craske said that councillors were doing their bit by agreeing to cut their numbers by 28% in 2018, conveniently forgetting that all Tories voted against UKIP’s proposal to cut allowances by 33% in 2014 and representing an immediate saving.
His list of councils nationwide that had got themselves into similar financial difficulties was not well received. Neither was his statement that the community had not engaged with the park sale. Given the two 3,000 signature petitions, 1,361 consultation responses, the newspaper features, the web presence and indeed the presence of real residents before him, it was real vintage idiocy on Craske’s part. What a shame that the Bexley Action Group was instrumental in dislodging the wrong man from office 18 months ago.
The campaign group reminded Craske that he had refused to meet them when asked.
Like a torturer relishing the next ratchet on the rack, councillor Craske predicted that things could only get worse. “Let’s be clear, while these decisions we are having to make in this four year term are harder than were made in the previous four year term, they are nothing compared to the difficult decisions the council elected in 2018 will have to deliver”. “Well you won’t have to worry about that” came a voice from the floor.” And finally the coward’s way out. Craske repeated that the decision wasn’t his to make, it was the General Purposes Committee’s.
Councillor Philip Read made the point that Bexley needs more houses but wisely kept his backing for the scheme commendably short. Judged solely by the criterion, did he make his case well? Yes, he did a pretty good job. Would his colleague Linda Bailey do the same?
Bailey began by mumbling and the first audible words were her default position when she has nothing original to say. She praised and thanked the authors of the report. Then in desperation she fell back on blaming the last Labour government for forcing the proposed land sales. Beneath the chorus of disapproval I could just hear her wittering on about children and grandchildren.
The best she managed was to repeat almost verbatim Ms. Ainge’s opening address. She was still going on about if the proposal was approved by cabinet even though three out of the five present had already make it clear they would vote for it and so did she. It was a truly pathetic performance.
Whether it was more or less pathetic than cabinet member Sawyer’s performance is open to debate but I found myself looking at the ceiling while cringing almost with embarrassment. When I looked down I discovered I was not alone, some of them councillors too.
Councillor Sawyer acknowledged the concerns and said if he lived near the park he “would feel exactly the same. The possible disposal is to safeguard other open spaces. It may not make us popular, it may not make us any friends.”
The alternative was “that other open spaces would revert to meadow and then to woodland. There would be an increase in fly tipping. There will be no sports provision in any open space.”
“We have above average levels of obesity. Many local residents use our parks for their exercise regimes and that should and must be allowed to continue.” But not in Old Farm Park presumably.
Reverting to his first theme, “there would be no dog bins and there would be the closure of 31 children’s playgrounds and 16 ball courts.”.
He “would not be able to look a child in the eye that comes from a background with less money than is available in other households and say I’m sorry there is no playground when there is an alternative.” Some of the words were lost in the general hubbub but that was definitely the gist of it.
I have heard much the same I'm a decent guy speech so many times now that I have become sure it is just an act. I was taken in by the I’m on your side really tactics over the Belvedere Splash Park but not any more. Even if it was true it makes not a scrap of difference, Alex Sawyer is Deputy Leader, there is no way he is going to rock any boat. Before ending he couldn’t resist repeating his not popular, not making friends diatribe just in case someone still didn’t believe he is Mr. Nice Guy.
I was genuinely disappointed to have councillor Sawyer confirm my growing suspicions.
The council leader, somewhat like councillor Bailey, referred to the decision cabinet members may take later. Presumably she too had not heard every cabinet member declare their intentions earlier.
True to form she then tried to set a political trap. After several £100k. plus a year council officers had spent all of 2015 formulating a carefully costed plan, she asked the Labour leader to make one up on the spur of the moment. He declined her kind offer.