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Bonkers Blog December 2016

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10 December - Councillors are not fans of the Bexley Heritage Trust and no one at all likes Thames Water

Following on from the hour spent raking over the Sidcup Walled Garden the Places Scrutiny Committee moved on to flooding. The first question came from the Chairman who asked if those wading through the flood problems were liaising with their colleagues in building control.

They were and the GLA and Environment Agency were involved too.

Councillor Stefano Borella asked about the relationship with Thames Water which was not, he said, his favourite utility. Join the club Stef. They never did come to fill in the hole they dug in my front garden path or remove the plastic safety barrier. Nor did they ever reply to the Townley Road residents whose domestic plumbing systems they managed to fill with mud and grit. According to other correspondents the mess they made in Townley Road is being repeated right across the borough.

Councillor Borella said several roads are subjected to frequent flooding and sewage overflow and it has been going on for years with no remedy in prospect.

The responsible Council officer said that they “struggle with our relationship with them [Thames Water] , It is difficult. It is not easy”. The Thames Barrier is the responsibility of the Environment Agency.

SlaughterCouncillor June Slaughter (Conservative, Sidcup) asked if Brexit might have any impact on water management. The Directives come from the EU and Councillor Slaughter’s question went unanswered.

The next item for discussion was street lights and in particular the conversion to LED.

Councillor Borella (Labour, North End) was not especially enthusiastic about the plan for street light failures to be reported only on line.

The ‘Digital by default’ system, as it is called, was said to be not causing any problems, presumably because with no other means of access they will go unrecorded. The responsible Council officer said that “it is down to friends and relatives to report faults”. Whilst street light fault reporting is not a particularly critical issue it is exactly the sort of attitude that leaves my aunt in Newham cut off. She can use a telephone but not a computer, her nearest relative (me) is an hour’s journey away and at nearly 97 all her friends are dead.

“Go to the library” the Council officer said. I managed to suppress a disapproving laugh and like me, Councillor Borella was not impressed, although in practice a failed street light is probably not dependent on just one person reporting it.

Moore BaconDirector Paul Moore said he would nevertheless take Councillor Borella’s point into account for the Council’s new digital platform due next year.

Councillor Cheryl Bacon (Conservative, Cray Meadows) hoped there might be some consistency of approach on the new website. She also thought that the Call Centre should be able to accept reports of lamp failures. It would be quicker for the staff to tap in the address on their computer than wait for the caller to find a pencil and then write down a web address, she said, and it seems a fair point.

Councillor June Slaughter asked if the public had commented on the LED lighting and was told that about 30 of the 3,000 lamps so far installed had given rise to problems such as shining into bedrooms. There had also been some complimentary comment.

There was a brief statement on the transition of Hall Place and Danson House back to Council control. Councillor Joe Ferreira (Labour, Erith) noted that £2·5 million had been written off due to the effective failure of the Bexley Heritage Trust and was concerned about the financial viability of the other recipients of Council grants. No reassurances could be given as it was a matter for the Director of Finance.

DaveyCouncillor John Davey saw the Council takeover as an opportunity because he didn’t think the Heritage Trust had done a very good job. Several features, such as the sunken and herb gardens, had been closed. He asked what would become of the small businesses (the butterfly display, the café etc.) that sub-let premises from the Trust.

He was told that the businesses would continue but the Trust had stopped supporting some garden features as the money ran out.

Councillor Slaughter said the transfer of control had financial implications because the Trust had charitable status and the Council did not which might impact the services on offer. She was told that the opening hours would be unchanged but might be “tweaked” in the light of experience.

Councillor Slaughter also asked about possible staff redundancies and was met with “we are looking at some restructuring”.

ClarkCouncillor Val Clark (Conservative, Falconwood & Welling) was “not in the least bit surprised that Bexley Heritage Trust got itself into difficulties”. She has found “that when people receive grants they become stale. It is amazing what you can do when you have less money and how inventive you can be. Hall Place used to be vibrant, now it looks empty and there are voids everywhere as if nothing is going on. The Council can make it the great place it used to be”.

Finally the Chargeable Garden Waste Service was up for review. There are currently 38,600 addresses signed up and the churn rate is broadly in line with the turn over rate for house occupancy. 94% of last year’s sign ups had renewed, nearly half by Direct Debit.

Councillor Ferreira said that residents were still complaining that they had to pay for what was previously included in the Council Tax but accepted that “it is where we are”.

WatersIt fell to Councillor John Waters to first bring a sour note into what had been a civilised, if somewhat dull meeting. He did the only thing of which he appears to be capable, criticise the opposition.

He said “he was a little disappointed that the Labour party has not been leading with their thanks [to Council staff]. Councillor Newman had been wrong {when the bin tax was introduced] and I am sure, had he been here, he would have apologised profusely. Sadly we have missed his contribution. I have canvassed in the north of the borough, in the Labour wards, and there are rows of bins in that deprived area of the borough. Clearly people think it is a good scheme and think it is value for money, and they are quite right, it is.”

Councillor Clark asked how the bins held by those who did not renew their subscription would be recovered. They are going to be tagged, “but tags are easily removed and bins hidden in back gardens”.

Deputy Director David Bryce-Smith said the aim is to remove unpaid bins by the end of December but those who hide bins in garages “are a challenge. Additionally there would be an audit in the Spring of next year.

BinsI have no faith in any audit that might be conducted. Two doors along from me there is a house occupied by two people who have two green bins with no justification whatsoever and most weeks they manage to fill both.

Councillor Borella was still upset about the charge but acknowledged the successful aspects of the scheme. He had campaigned in John Waters’ ward and residents there were no happier about the “bin tax” than anywhere else. His question was about informing newcomers to the borough and referred back to the first section of the meeting when Sidcup garden volunteers referred to the problem of fly tipping. Mr. Bryce-Smith said there was a plan to target new residents to the borough and he is “working hard to address the customer care problems” brought on by the “overwhelming success” of the scheme.

On fly tipping the Council is keen to prosecute, but not so keen apparently to do anything about the photographs and video submitted to them two months ago. An acknowledgement, but since then, total silence.

Councillor Slaughter asked if it was possible to charge those who did not return their unsubscribed bins but as Councillor Craske once said, they were purchased in bulk so cheaply that any administration cost associated with recovery was not money well spent.

CraskeCabinet Member Peter Craske thought that keeping a bin in a garage was self defeating, but I have one in mine that cost me nearly £40 that is an ideal mouse proof container for bulk purchased pet food. Naturally he couldn’t resist mounting an attack on the Labour party. After a quick comment on Councillor Newman “who predicted no one would sign up” he said that similar schemes had been “introduced right across the country. Lewisham is doing it at double the price. People are quite happy to support it and on fly tipping we now have an enforcement team fining people. It has been very successful after only six weeks of operation.”

“If people see fly tipping they should report it. I understand that Labour members take photos and do whatever they want on social media but it never actually gets reported”. The Chairman stepped in just in time to stop a more heated debate by reminding the Committee that the issue being discussed was garden waste not fly tipping.

At the close of the meeting Councillor Borella brought up the subject of unauthorised road works. He had noticed them all around the borough. Thames Water was one of the culprits. They don’t comply with Council instructions and cause long tail backs.

Mr. Bryce-Smith said that Thames Water causes (outside the metering project) “significant problems and had been issued with a quarter of a million pounds of fines for unauthorised works. They have caused queues from Bexley to Dartford for emergency works which weren’t emergency works. They are the top problematic utility company”.

Thames Water will be asked to attend the April 2017 meeting.


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