You go seven weeks without a significant Council meeting and then seven come along within the space of three weeks. The first of them was held last night.
It was the Resources Overview and Scrutiny Committee chaired by Councillor Steven Hall.
There are many ways of subverting democracy and Bexley Council knows them all. The best of them are subtle and pass unnoticed. For example; who would know that in the past two years the number of public meetings in Bexley has plummeted if it had not been reported here?
Scrutiny meetings are down from 28 to twelve a year and Ordinary Full Council meetings from four to three. The Resources meeting had in the past a tendency to run over three hours but was down to 90 minutes last night, in part achieved by changing its format.
The Resources Overview and Scrutiny Committee no longer includes a Cabinet Member’s Report. Committee Members were requested to put questions to the Cabinet Member for Slamming Doors, “outside the meeting”. That way the public are not able to hear his response and kept in the dark.
Maxine Fothergill (Conservative, Colyers) was keen to emulate her recent TV appearance by asking the first question. She asked the Director of Finance Alison Griffin how the EU Referendum result might affect Bexley’s investments. Ms. Griffin said there was “a risk increase” but was “confident that the reserves were at an adequate level to withstand any potential shock. However at present our growth fund is doing better than it was previously”.
Councillor Fothergill is paid £750 per meeting as its Vice Chairman so it is just as well that the value of Bexley’s investments is up.
Maybe better value than her fellow Vice Chairman Councillor Dourmoush (Conservative, Longlands), also on £750 a meeting. He left after half an hour because it was the Festival of Eid. However before he went he wanted to “congratulate the Conservative Administration on finding £1·14 million of underspend through unfilled staff posts. A wonderful achievement”. Err, yes, I suppose it is if cutting services and putting people out of work is the best way forward. He asked the Director of Finance what the new savings target was for 2016/17. She said it was £21 million.
Councillor Alan Deadman (Labour, North End) expressed concern about “the strain put upon staff“ called upon to do the extra work due to the unfilled vacancies. The Finance Director said that the Council tried “to take advantage of those who had got jobs elsewhere by encouraging all officers to look again on whether it was necessary to recruit that post like for like or can we do that work in a different way”. She was “pleased to see the direction of travel [on staff savings]”. She “recognised the increased work load”.
Councillor Daniel Francis (Labour, Belvedere) asked the Cabinet Member about Homes in Multiple Occupation. The Cabinet Member said he didn’t understand the question but immediately followed up with “it was a big concern but other boroughs were much worse than here“. He had agreed with James Brokenshire, MP for Old Bexley & Sidcup and the responsible Minister, to employ an expert from his department to assist Bexley tackle “the issue of fraudulent applications“. The cost of this appointment is £92,000.
There has already been some success in reducing expenditure.
Councillor Howard Marriner (Conservative, Barnehurst) asked if Bexley was better equipped to handle the Garden Waste renewals and cancellations than it was a year ago when the scheme was set up. Deputy Director Graham Ward said the on-line renewals facility was improved.
The Chairman asked the Cabinet Member for Changing Addresses if he would like to say something about the Digital Futures proposals. He said he “would reiterate what he said last time”. He was less keen on forcing Councillors to adopt technology than the Sub-Committee was”. Apart from that he was happy with their report.
Councillors Deadman and Francis said that it was taking an hour and a quarter to fail to download an Agenda. (I’ve frequently waited 15 minutes and sometimes given up but I am not as patient as Councillor Deadman.)
The Cabinet Member for Noisy Parties said that the IT provider knew there were issues and different servers were occasionally not talking to each other. There is no easy solution to it. He asked for Committee Members to submit reports. (It’s been going on for years, did nobody notice?)
The next Agenda item was was about the voluntary sector in Bexley. The borough has 840 registered charitable organisations and a further 1,000 unregistered with a combined income in the region of £235 million per year. Councillor David Leaf (Conservative, Longlands) had chaired a Sub-Group looking at their activities.
As has become the norm, Councillor Leaf managed to squeeze some political capital out of a serious subject. “Ten to fifteen years ago the New Labour Blair approach to everything was to throw money at it, but it is about how the money is being spent.”
Councillor Francis said he had spoken to many of the voluntary groups and they were saying they couldn’t cut any more staff. If they did it would put “cost pressures back on the Council” but the Chairman stopped him in mid flow asking him to be more specific.
Councillor Francis asked the specific question but it wasn’t answered and the Chairman wanted to move on quickly. Councillor Francis protested.“Sorry Chair but that was not the question I asked.” The Chairman’s ill tempered response is provided in full below.
Councillor Francis, can you stop?
And if you think that was a little uncalled for, Chairman Hall said it again, but louder, 25 seconds later.
Councillor June Slaughter asked if the accommodation promised for the voluntary sector on the former Tesco site on Broadway would be forthcoming. The Chairman told her it wasn’t relevant. He relented when he was told the subject was mentioned in the Sub-Committee’s report.
The Cabinet Member for Reporting Bloggers to the Police said it was up to the developer and it may or may not be included. Councillor Slaughter thought he should be more proactive.
The Chairman said that any further questions should be deferred to the meeting scheduled for “six months time”. (See Tweet below.)
The Chairman said he and officers had been “looking for ideas” to be incorporated in the Committee’s Annual Work Programme and they were listed in Agenda Item 12. Councillor Francis thought a good one would be to invite the BVSC’s Chief Executive to next April’s Scrutiny Meeting. The Chairman wasn’t keen and offered a number of petty objections. Councillor Francis said that the BVSC was a “major issue within the remit of this Committee and the Chairman should be invited to come and see us annually”. The Chairman reluctantly said "I will certainly consider it”.
Councillor Francis didn’t think that was good enough. He proposed the invitation as a Motion swiftly seconded by Councillor Gill MacDonald (Labour, Belvedere). Chairman Hall continued to say he would consider the invitation and was slow to recognise what Councillor Francis had done. A vote was called and Councillor Francis’s Motion was passed with six votes to one against. Colin Tandy (Conservative, St. Mary’s). Many abstained.
Obviously the Chairman didn’t like that and in best European Union fashion called for the vote to be taken again. Fortunately the Committee Officer ruled that a valid vote had already been taken.
The final comment came from Cabinet Member Don Massey. He thought “social media ought to be embraced“ and he “very much welcomed it”. Presumably not when it uncovers something he’d prefer it didn’t.
I don’t know what has happened to Councillor Steven Hall, I used to think he was one of the good guys.