was just as well I left home for yesterday's Resources Scrutiny meeting 20
minutes early so as to get to speak to Mick Barnbrook before the meeting began,
for some clown had put temporary traffic lights in Long Lane that were specially timed to
create a 30 minute queue back to Knee Hill but a queue no more than three cars
long in the opposite direction. I have since discovered that it was like that for most of yesterday.
I scraped into the meeting with three minutes to spare but if I had missed the first hour it would not have mattered much, the subjects were unexciting and the acoustics as bad as ever. I could hear Chairman Steven Hall fifty feet away very clearly but Cabinet Member Don Massey who was closest to me at around ten feet came across as little better than a burbling sound.
It’s something to do with hearing him from multiple loudspeakers as well as directly, reminiscent of being at an air display in the 1950s where primitive public address speakers were spaced every couple of hundred yards along a mile and a half of runway.
I resisted the temptation to leave early and try my luck with the webcast because I didn't want to miss Item 8, Councillor Rob Leitch’s report on Bexley’s Digital Future.
Unfortunately Rob Leitch (a school teacher by trade) wasn’t there. “Away on business” apparently. When I was at school the longest trip out we got was a coach ride from Hampshire to see the Cutty Sark.
Instead of Rob we had four members of his Sub-Group saying how good it all was and how enthusiastic Councillor Leitch is for the project.
Bexley Council’s “quite dreadful” website came in for a good deal of criticism but Cabinet Member Don Massey believed that residents didn’t see it the same way because their requirements were not the same as councillors’. I would suggest that frequently waiting ten minutes for a page to appear is not good for anyone. (†)
My own concern is that a digital council can cut off some people from services totally.
Newham Council has created a system whereby the digitally disadvantaged cannot even have house visitors. Ordering parking permits is an entirely online service. Councillor Andy Dourmoush’s (Conservative, Longlands) suggestion that webless people can be given assistance at a library is total nonsense when you are 96 years old and the only possibility of getting outside is a car trip to an out of town supermarket.
Bexley does not appear to have solved that problem either.
The Sub-Group produced ten recommendations but only three provoked much interest. There's one which attempts to discourage Freedom of Information requests and two which affect councillors directly. Naturally it was only those that were discussed in any detail.
One of the two recommendations was that councillors should be encouraged to stop using paper and work from electronic documentation on tablets etc. A couple of councillors, Chairman Hall included, do so already. If the proportion rose to 50% the saving would be £13,000 per annum. The other recommendation was to cease the home delivery service for council documents and save another £34,000 a year. Several Conservatives didn’t like that either.
Some forthright views were expressed. I had every sympathy for Councillor June Slaughter (Conservative, Sidcup) who found assimilation of on-screen documents more difficult than when they were presented on paper but less so when she strayed on to the expense that buying a tablet would cause her.
Councillor Colin Tandy (Conservative, St. Mary’s) said much the same thing but that well known Luddite, Councillor Alan Deadman, (Labour Leader, North End) said he has spent some of his allowance on a tablet and was gradually getting to grips with it. His view was that it was not right that only residents should feel the pain of cuts and if councillors wanted paper copies the answer was to print them themselves.
Cabinet Member Don Massey “wholeheartedly agreed“ with Councillor Deadman. Councillor Slaughter wished to “come back” but the Chairman refused permission.
Some councillors and senior officers are already working entirely from tablets at meetings as you may see from the adjacent image.
Sometimes being forced to sit behind speakers offers advantages.
Note: The associated screenshot was taken at random from about twelve feet away at an oblique angle. It does not reveal anything significant and if it had done would not have been published. However perhaps Councillor Leitch should make an eleventh recommendation.
† The problem with the democracy sub-domain was recently acknowledged by a council officer in an email to Mr. Elwyn Bryant.