There was a good turnout to see the first batch of Bexley’s parks listed for disposal actually being given the chop, close to 70 unhappy residents. (The photograph shows only one of the two public seating areas.) The Committee Officer had wisely decided to move the meeting to the main chamber and display the Agenda via the projection system, it wouldn’t really be practical to hand a six inch pile of paper to everyone present. I hope it never becomes a regular feature, I missed the freedom to thumb through the pages and pick out bits that should be featured here, but that may have impractical too with 1,282 pages to look through.
The unfortunate Chairman was Councillor Cafer Munur who showed some impatience to press on at the outset, but maybe that was just as well given that what is usually a 40 minute meeting went on past ten o’clock.
Those looking forward to seeing how Committee member Aileen Beckworth (Conservative, Sidcup) might vote on the park disposals were disappointed. Someone, the Leader probably, was upset by the prospect of a vote being other than unanimous so Councillor Beckwith was banned from attending. ‘Predetermined’ was the official phrase. Accused of having made up her mind before hearing the debate in plain language.
Councillor Rob Leitch (Conservative, Sidcup) is the appointed substitute but he might prove to be an embarrassment to party unity as well so he was ruled out too and the absence was filled by Councillor David Hurt who said nothing all night long.
The predetermination issue was of course just a one-way device; every councillor present had made up their mind which way they would vote long before hearing the arguments again.
The first half hour of the meeting was taken up by relatively mundane matters like boundary revisions to which we may return another time. The main Agenda item began with Deputy Director Toni Ainge’s usual speech. £56 million has still to be saved - a euphemism for cut - of which nearly half is not yet identified - a euphemism for prepare yourself for more shocks. She then referred councillors to her Agenda report on park disposals which the public could not see.
There was a reference to the Statutory Consultation conducted over the 2015/16 Christmas and New Year period the detail of which was again difficult for the public to follow.
She said that the Committee would have to decide whether or not a Public Inquiry was required but in her opinion it was not.
As soon as Ms. Ainge stopped speaking, Councillor Nigel Betts made a quite useful summary of what the Committee had to do. He said the need for selling the sites had been “already well debated, we need to ensure that we have followed the right procedure for disposal to take place. The actual decision falls to the Cabinet [under £3m. sale price] or the Council [over £3m.] but tonight we need to be satisfied that objections have been properly answered”. He went on to say that “residents have to put up with these things for the good of the Council”. He “moved that a public enquiry isn’t necessary and the disposal of each open space should be proceeded with”.
There then followed 80 minutes of questions, mostly from Councillor Daniel Francis (Labour, Belvedere), of a frequently technical nature which were one by one dismissed by various Council officers, including Mr. Alabi the Head of Legal Services. These will be summarised when time allows. In the time available today it is only possible to summarise the relatively simple bits and what for many would be the highlight of the meeting. The critical addresses by Sidcup Councillors Rob Leitch and June Slaughter.
Councillor Leitch is one of the very best speakers the Tories have in Bexley - when he lays off the pointless political barbs - and he did not disappoint.
Rob started with a reminder that he was there to represent residents. “Disposing of parks is neither financially sustainable or socially sensible. it sets a dangerous precedence at future times of financial difficulty.” He said this applied to the sale of any park, anywhere, not just in Sidcup. He wished to draw Committee members’ attention to the following points.
• In March 2015 the business case for selling parks had been passed in the budget. It implied the case had been “predetermined”.
• The identity of the parks being considered for disposal were not made public during the budget consultation, thereby implying the result of that consultation was invalid.
• Any money raised “would be used to offset further reductions in grounds maintenance in other parks yet in truth such money cannot be ring-fenced. That was not made clear to residents”.
• The Christmas 2015 Consultation was missing from the Council’s list of consultations [for three weeks] and when it was, no instructions were given on how residents could respond were given. In fact the only method was to a “bizarre” email address to which several are known to have bounced back. The campaigners brought the consultation to the attention of more residents than the Council did.
• Councillor Leitch’s own consultation on distribution of the News Shopper in which the statutory notice was published showed that fewer than 30% of roads in Bexley get a copy. Old Farm Avenue was one of the omissions. The Public Notice had been another “tick box” exercise.
• “Politics should be about more than process, it is about people and we are unfortunately forgetting that.”
• One of the conditions for a Public Inquiry is that there should be “numerous objections”. There had been 4,998, the recent budget consultation provoked only 378 responses.
• There are alternatives to selling parks. He had raised in excess of £15,000 to restore the Sidcup Walled Garden mainly through business sponsorship. “Sale of open spaces should be avoided.”
• Councillor Leitch urged colleagues to listen to residents.
Ms. Ainge dismissed all of Councillor Leitch’s comments except that she agreed the money raised could not be ring-fenced and said she had put the notice in the News Shopper three times and not the legal minimum of once. She said her Consultation exercise had been a success.
Mr. Alabi said that the number of objections “did not of themselves lead to a Public Inquiry. The objections were not sufficiently complicated to justify an Inquiry”.
Councillor June Slaughter sensibly attacked the park sales from a different angle.
• Residents were concerned not only with “the difficult financial situation the Council is in but also the physical future of the borough”.
• “Consultation is at the heart of the matter and there should be proper publicity.” The non-statutory Summer consultation was reasonably fair and could be completed in a variety of ways. “The rules for this legislation [Statutory Consultations] were passed in 1972 when we had proper local newspapers with reporters who actually reported local news. But there is nothing in the Act to say that nothing else should be done. It was a minimum requirement, why didn’t we do more?”
• She had alerted the Acting Chief Executive to the lack of publicity material in libraries on 9th December. A reply nine days later said the issue would be discussed on 22nd December. Half the consultation period had passed by then. “The notices subsequently exhibited were of the smallest and most insignificant type you could imagine and right on top of Christmas”.
• The consultation did not appear on the Council’s website “because it was a statutory consultation”. “Statutory consultations are arguably more important than voluntary ones.” At no time did it appear on the Council’s website Home page.
• “Openness and transparency was lacking.”
• Her questions about the advice given to officers about Statutory Consultations asked on 20th December 2015 were eventually answered on 8th March.
• Publicity was “too little and too late, and why? I will leave you to draw your own conclusions”.
• The Council’s strapline, Listening to you, working for you, was her invention. “Residents now feel this is a mockery.”
• “Members of the Committee were given a legal briefing and it was a pity that other council members were not invited.” Her advice was that “an unresolved objection was one on which there was no consensus and for any exception a Public Inquiry may be necessary.”
• There are no very local alternative parks and the development of a nearby football ground was rejected on the grounds of “the loss of recreational land”.
• Usage statistics were gathered during a very wet week in October.
• The fact that Old Farm Park is only 0·29% of the borough’s open spaces is irrelevant. “The relevance is the importance that residents of Sidcup place on the amenity. Do we need to cover the whole borough with housing?”
• “Were there no alternatives? Burr Farm has been mentioned. What about Woodside School in Halt Robin Road which is likely to be disposed of in due course?”
• “Maybe there should be a referendum to see if residents would prefer a rise in Council Tax as an alternative to selling off the family silver.”
• “These things are unresolved objections and should be taken into account when deciding if there should be a Public Inquiry.”
• “Should this Committee be taking the decision at all? Councillor Beckwith has been told she is predetermined. Which of you can say that you are not predetermined? You have already voted for disposal in principle.”
• A Public Inquiry ought to be held.
The Conservatives did the Leader’s bidding and unanimously voted down the need for a Public Inquiry.
Note. A report such as this takes a very long time to prepare, four hours for the above and for various personal reasons time is very short at the moment. It may be possible to fill in the gaps in this report at the weekend, and it might not.
Some of the quotations in this report should be regarded as close approximations of what was said. There has been insufficient time for all of them to be verbatim transcriptions.