I was looking forward to the Places Overview and Scrutiny meeting, Agendas
about the future of the place we have to live in are usually interesting and
Chairman Councillor Melvin Seymour can rattle through it at a decent pace. I was also
hoping that spending another evening in the Council Chamber might help to get BiB
back on the road again.
Unfortunately I was disappointed; no, I was bored rigid for most of the time. The first item was the restoration of Sidcup’s Walled Garden. A quick resumé might have been OK but how do you get to spend very nearly an hour talking about the planting of roses and paying for them?
I think the answer is that Bexley Council is keen to milk the success of the volunteers who saved the garden and hopes a gullible population will overlook the fact that it was Bexley Council that voted to abandon it to the nettles and brambles.
The scheme to rescue it was the brainchild of the new (first elected 2014) Councillor for Sidcup, Rob Leitch, who has since enjoyed a meteoric rise to Deputy Leader of the Council.
The Council as a whole may have voted for its demise but Rob had a vision, and as he soon discovered, so had a lot of Sidcup residents too.
I may have found the hour long discussion less than scintillating, and with so very few Councillors participating in the discussion, maybe I was not alone, but you should not run away with the idea that I do not appreciate that what happened in Sidcup is a magnificent achievement. In fact BiB has frequently carried a plea for donations and I was among the very first to donate a three figure sum to Rob’s fund; but that doesn’t stop me from being suspicious about the motive behind allowing the subject half a Scrutiny meeting. It is not a privilege afforded to any other groups of volunteers.
We learned from the garden’s eloquent spokesman. Mrs. Isenberg, that the garden renewal had not always been welcomed by Bexley Council but relationships are now improving. However they still get no help with garden waste removal and are sometimes bogged down by Bexley’s red tape.
As Bexley Council initially chose not to spend any money on the garden one should presumably not be very surprised by that, but in practice a little bit of help is forthcoming now and again.
Thanks to various sponsors, within six months of forming the community group, the money in the bank was enough by the end of 2015 to keep the project going for two years but the real financial breakthrough came when Tesco provided a grant of £12,000. The money will allow more of the flower beds to be restored and sooner because the money has to be spent by April 2017. After that the volunteers will be looking for more sponsors.
Councillor Gareth Bacon reminisced about the garden of his youth when the Council had the money to maintain it. He commended Councillor Rob Leitch and the volunteers for their efforts.
He asked Mrs. Isenberg if she was getting the support from the Council that was expected. The question was answered by one of her colleagues which amounted to a polite “Not really but support is better now than it used to be”.
The Deputy Director for Communities and Leisure said the Council was actively looking at ways it might be able to help with waste disposal and grass cutting.
Sidcup Councillor June Slaughter who has frequently been seen raking up muck from the garden spoke of the enjoyment, pride and fun that can be gained by voluntary work of this nature.
Councillor Joe Ferriera (Labour, Erith) thought the Council instead of handing out reams of questions on paper and saying “you get on with it”, should be saying to the group “come on in, we’ll go through this together”.
Councillor Borella (Labour, North End) also lavished praise on the community garden group and Rob Leitch. He suggested that pupils at the local school who had been blamed earlier for much of the garden’s litter problem might instead be recruited as volunteers.
Mrs. Isenberg thought that involving minors might create a new “minefield” of Council red tape.
Councillor Cheryl Bacon said that the garden group was not the first in Bexley but the tradition had largely fallen by the wayside possibly because of "the minefield" of paperwork. She asked the Cabinet Member to think about the value of such activities when setting budgets.
Mrs. Isenberg reminded Councillors that there would be no Tesco grant this year but £12,000 is the sort of money needed to "bring such a garden to life". Somehow I doubt that that is the sort of Budget help which is likely to become available.