When I eventually managed to download the Agenda for yesterday’s Public Cabinet meeting I was relieved to see nothing in it to justify more than 30 minutes and fortunately that estimate proved to be about right. Half the Agenda, 28 pages, was a list of the services to be cut and how much money those cuts might save. There was nothing new there, the pain has all been published before.
Chairman Teresa O’Neill OBE (Ordering Budget Excisions) began by saying it was Will Tuckley‘s last week in Bexley and as he was absent hopes were briefly raised that Greenwich police might have arrested him, but alas that case is still with the Crown Prosecution Service. It transpired that he was simply demob. happy and decided to hand over to his stand-in Paul Moore early. In the event, Mr. Moore said not a word to justify either his presence or his salary.
Finance Director Alison Griffin was the main, indeed very nearly the only, speaker. As expected she ran through the progress made towards getting the books to balance in the next financial year. She thought that recent government announcements would knock Bexley’s income by a further £800,000 and several unknowns were likely to make things even worse than predicted earlier in the year.
The introduction of the Living Wage would fortunately be almost balanced by a delay until 2020 to introduction of the Care Act which carries with it various adverse financial implications.
Bexley’s savings target for next year is £14 million and so far those identified lie somewhere between 9·6 and 10·9 million. It does not augur well for residents hoping to stop the sale of parks.
Unfortunately this year has so far seen an overspend of £740,000. Ms. Griffin reminded Cabinet that the 2015/16 budget had been balanced by a number of one-off measures which cannot be used again so things can only get worse.
Ms. Griffin briefly mentioned the consultation which had taken place over the summer and summarised it by saying that the council’s 19 business cases “had been broadly supported”. After speaking for just short of 14 minutes, the Finance Director recommended her report to Cabinet.
Cabinet member Don Massey said he wanted to “echo” what Ms. Griffin had said and took nearly seven minutes to do so. He likes the sound of his own voice and prides himself as a thought reader too. He believed residents understood the council’s financial predicament. More likely, most don’t even know about it.
Like John Peters at the Audit Committee meeting, Massey made reference to judges who give directions that cost hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Cabinet member Linda Bailey lamented the poor response to the summer consultation but said “it was neither here nor there” and rapidly moved on. Readers may be interested to know that of the borough’s 220,000 residents, just 333 had commented on Bexley’s plans.
It is a figure that makes the result a total nonsense, 333 is a number that could indicate that respondents came predominantly from local Conservative Party members doing their leader’s bidding, a scenario which might explain that those in favour of the various savings outnumber those against in every category. Mostly by a significant amount.
Labour councillors had warned of the dangers of running a summer consultation when the idea was floated, a fact which councillor Daniel Francis brought up again yesterday. The Chairman said that some people have more time during the summer. Probably everyone in Bexley who might at one time have responded knows by now that Bexley council will always do exactly what it first proposes and they are no longer prepared to waste their time.
Councillor Stefano Borella was critical of the wording in consultations presumably aware that the questions tend to dictate the required answers. He said that a contributory factor to the present financial woes was the council’s refusal to begin easing up council tax five years ago. Teresa O’Neill said not doing so was good for residents "as we saw at the ballot box, probably the biggest consultation of the lot”. Not the first time that she has admitted that electoral success was put before longer term financial security.
Unfortunately the council is now so seriously short of cash that no reasonable increase in taxation can solve the problem; it is just a shame that they didn’t introduce some of the efficiency savings and cuts earlier but that of course would not have served their electoral ambitions either.