I took a note of the date and it is almost nine months to the day that a Conservative Councillor told me that there was no chance whatsoever that Old Farm Park could be saved from the developers. It wouldn’t matter how many residents protested or how devastating the criticism from right thinking councillors might be, the Fat Controller had made her wishes clear and there could be no reprieve. The comments probably coloured my reporting of the situation and did nothing to mitigate my pessimism. Bexley Council never listens to public dissent, its record is to refuse to accept petitions or dismiss them. Consultation responses are either discredited because they are too few in number and unrepresentative or welcomed if the result is not entirely negative to the Council’s ambitions.
Last night a proposal put forward by Cabinet and kicked around for months in accordance with a well rehearsed charade went back to Cabinet for their seal of approval to be stamped on their own idea - or maybe one eagerly seized upon when first put forward by the Finance Director.
Six of the Leader’s pet puppets put forward their own reasons for wishing to sell four of Bexley’s open spaces while their fingers remained stuffed firmly into their ears as they have been since March 2015.
No other Councillor was allowed to speak on the subject until every Cabinet member had been allowed to say why they would not be moved. A waste of everyone’s time but the pantomime has to be played out.
There was a reasonably good turn out of Councillors present; 100% of the UKIP contingent, half the Labour and a quarter of the Tories. The Old Farm campaign group was down to a dozen; they already know all they need to know about what the slogan ‘Listening to you’ means in this borough. Absolutely nothing.
The first cabinet member to speak in favour of the sale was Peter Craske. He spoke for ten minutes and twenty six seconds without saying a single thing that was new. Perhaps I should rephrase that. Without saying a single thing that was both relevant and new.
We were “lucky, he said, to be living in Bexley. A “fantastic borough”. “We have a lot to be proud of.” “Our schools are ranked in the top five in the country.” “The lowest level of crime in London, in fact one of the lowest levels in the whole of the UK.” (How fortunate it is that Bexley’s Chief Executive managed to “resolve his situation” with the CPS after the police arrested Councillor Craske in 2012.)
Bexley is “the number one borough in London for recycling with the best recycling rates in the country”. “It has the best parks playgrounds and tourist attractions in London and the South East.” “It’s fantastic”, well, fantasy maybe.
“We are not a borough that sits around and waits for things to happen, we get stuck in.” “We have invested millions of pounds of external funding in our town centres.” “The independent auditor”, who turned a blind eye to Bexley’s decision to employ illegal bailiff practices, said “Bexley has a proven track record of economy, efficiency and effectiveness in its use of resources.” “75% of residents recommend Bexley as a good place to live.” “Ten thousand people choose to move to this borough each year.” “It is the UK’s property hotspot.”
“We have always taken decisions that are in the long term interest of the borough. We have never looked only at the next week and short term.”
“Funding from central government used to account for 70% of our budget. Very shortly it will be 5% and by 2010 (sic) it will be zero.” “Since 2011 almost 500 business cases [cuts] have been set out and delivered”.
If the park sales are not approved “we will no longer be able to maintain our playgrounds. They will have to start being removed. We won’t have the money to cut the grass as often or at all. They will become overgrown very quickly. People will look out over scrubland. We want to be proud of our parks, not be embarrassed about them. I cannot believe anyone would wish otherwise. We have not been able to find any other solution to the one we approved in March 2015 and nor has anyone else. We have not put forward this proposal for a laugh.”
“I am proud to live in this borough and of our parks and open spaces. In the end this is a decision about the long term future of our borough. It [the decision] will ensure that Bexley remains one of the best places to live in the country.”
His theme appeared to be that his Council had made Bexley a green and pleasant land so it is fully entitled to remove one of the cornerstones on which it has been built.
Cabinet Member Don Massey thankfully took a less meandering path towards his justification for selling Bexley. His short cut was based on echoing his colleague Peter Craske and the list of achievements claimed by Bexley. He understood the “opposing arguments” put forward by residents and supporting Councillors but he “has seen no evidence that persuades me to change my mind on this”. “The sites meet the criteria for being offered for sale.“ One was “that there are other open spaces close by”. The assertion was challenged from the public gallery but Massey ploughed on. “The disposal of these four sites is the correct one.”
“He respected residents” (apart from his immediate neighbours in Larch Grove) but “I recommend that my Cabinet Colleagues approve the proposals tonight”. Two minutes and forty seconds.
Cabinet Member Linda Bailey said she had read “all the comments and all the objections” and could understand why residents were upset. Only a small part of the park would be sold and the remainder would be “enhanced. The objections relating to the Site of Importance to Nature Conservation had been "taken on board".
“Most of the points raised had been addressed.” Only most? I thought the General Purposes Committee had voted on the basis that all the complaints had been satisfactorily resolved.
“Disposal would generate the revenue savings that could be set against the ground maintenance budget to protect all the borough. Residents would not take kindly if they knew we could have protected their areas. Sale of the sites is for the benefit of all our residents.” She then announced she would support the sale, it would “be remiss in our duties as Councillors not to". Three minutes and twelve seconds.
Cabinet Member Philip Read said he would prefer not to be in “this situation”. He inevitably worked into his speech the 55% of the Council’s income currently spent on social care. He said the amount of open space had “increased in recent years. It is one of the reasons people like living in Bexley.” “The impact on Bexley will be minimal.” “Disposal is the right and responsible thing to do and consequently I will be supporting this proposal.” Three minutes and eight seconds.
Cabinet Member Eileen Pallen did not mention the park sale at all but concentrated instead only on repeating that the 2% Social Care precept on the Council Tax (£1·8 million) was not even enough to pay the increased Living Wage costs and that was why she “was supporting the proposals”. Gimee the money I don’t care who is hurt in the process. The one trick pony spoke for 75 seconds.
Deputy Leader Alex Sawyer once again attempted to pull off his all things to all men trick. He should be good at it by now, however he began by saying he would be supporting the proposal. “Because we have to.”
“If we did not go forward with the sale there would be no children’s playgrounds across the borough, there would be substantially reduced or no ground maintenance, it would resemble the Serengeti and make our open spaces unusable.” Wildebeest, rhinoceros and lions in Bexley. Maybe it would make an honest man of Peter Craske and Bexley would become a major tourist spot after all.
“It sticks in the throat that the government can spend money on frivolous things” while “Bexley suffers brutal cuts”. I took this to be a reference to the government’s waste of £9 million on their EU propaganda sheet. It may have been a more valid reference if Alex Sawyer had not been tempted into similar scare stories.
“I don’t think residents’ views should be ignored but I must consider what is in the borough’s best interests. I and my Cabinet colleagues can take whatever criticism comes our way on the chin. I support this proposal.” Two minutes and twenty four seconds.
With five out of six Cabinet members making a clear statement of their voting intentions it wasn’t really worth allowing any opposing voice to be heard but there is a cart before horse procedure to be followed so the meeting continued for another 50 minutes, but that can wait. You know how the vote went anyway. Six to none in favour of selling. It’s been signalled loudly for the past year.
Note: The idea is to sell the parks and put aside the money so that the interest can be used to offset maintenance costs in the remaining parks. There is however nothing at all to compel them not to waste the capital or the income on something else.