It is more than two weeks since I went to the Places Scrutiny meeting
which is usually the most interesting of the three scrutinies and I am beginning to forget what it was like.
I remember several Councillors and council officials were more than usually friendly and the public attendance level was poor verging on the non-existent.
It is not much of a surprise that the friendly voices all belong to the most effective Councillors and officials, among them the Assistant Chief Executive and her Strategy Manager.
The guest speaker was Tony Garratt who is Manager of the Bexleyheath Business Improvement District (BID). He took over more than two years ago from Ian Payne who was a natural showman and probably a hard act to follow.
Mr. Payne had the measure of Bexley Council; nearly three years on it may be safe to say we had several informal chats about them.
At the beginning of the year the BID was ‘rebranded’ which took the usual form. New logos and slogan; ‘Enjoy Bexleyheath. Shop, Celebrate, Stay’ which aims to be more inclusive of the night time economy.
Footfall is now very close to 200,000 a week but has declined slightly over the year. Major road works were blamed but poor weather has its effect too.
Vacancy rates “spiked at 4% this year” but have improved since to an all time low of 2½%.
Bexleyheath was seen as an important bus transport hub with 240,000 people a week coming through it but it is also “a bit of a hindrance”. School children are the problem.
Mr. Garratt has come to the conclusion that “parking is not particularly an issue for consumers but is a massive issue for businesses and their staff”. Utilisation of car parks is uneven and needs to be looked at.
The BID is funding two police officers for the town centre looking at business crime and customer safety. The Christmas lights and summer flowers are all the work of the BID but the Council usually gets the credit.
The day time and night time economies are not well integrated. “It is rare to see people come into a restaurant with bags of shopping.” The period between 5 p.m. and 7 has seen the biggest increase in footfall but it may be due to commuter traffic, the answer is presently unknown.
Closing the main shopping centre car park (it’s not Council owned) at 6:30 is definitely having an adverse effect on the town centre economy. People who come into town for events such as the Christmas lights switch on cannot get back to their car. “It is unheard of.”
The Chairman asked Mr. Garratt to bring his presentation to a premature end, him having overrun his allotted time by three minutes.
Question time revealed that 77% of the 200,000 visitors each week lived within the borough, 6% of them in the town centre. 90% of businesses had been in town for more than ten years.
Councillor Cheryl Bacon (Conservative, Crayford Meadows) was interested in parking. She would like to see signs on the approach to town indicating where vacancies might be (tell Alex Sawyer Cheryl, not Tony) and admitted to very nearly being trapped in the car park after a hairdressing appointment.
Mr. Garrett held out little hope of an extension to the hours as they are controlled by a different management team, the same one that decided it was a good idea to more than double parking charges. He was critical of existing signage which was directing people to the more expensive car parks.
Councillor Seán Newman (Labour, Belvedere) said the day and night time economies were unlikely to integrate further while the premises remained geographically separated. “Bexleyheath is one long corridor but there as a lack of a mix. There is no shopping in Bexleyheath after 5:30 so for three four or five hours there is nothing to do. Until that is addressed things will not get better. You go back to the car park and go somewhere else.”
The BID is very aware of these problems.
Councillor Aileen Beckwith (Conservative, Sidcup) said she could “drive to Bluewater in ten to fifteen minutes and park for free among a wealth of shops” and “unless Bexleyheath can do something like that I don’t see how you can get people to come to Bexleyheath”.
Mrs. Beckwith may not speak often but she knows how to hit a nail squarely on its head. Mr. Garratt had no answer and there were murmurs of agreement from around the chamber. There is no easy answer.
Councillor Esther Amaning (Labour, Lesnes Abbey) asked what effect Brexit may have had. It may have caused a bit of unease but not a lot else was the BID Manager’s answer. “It’s the press that creates the big illusion that there is a problem around Brexit.” Business Rate increases for the worst affected businesses (60% up) were a much bigger problem.
Councillor John Waters (Conservative, Danson Park) brought up the question of the doubled car parking charges in Broadway Square. “Were the traders livid?”
Tony Garrett gave a one word answer. “Yes.” and then “it is shooting ourselves in the foot”. The car park is managed by people beyond his control or the Council’s.