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Bonkers Blog February 2017

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17 February (Part 2) - Places Scrutiny. The more interesting bits and the very interesting bits

The final part of last Tuesday’s Places Scrutiny meeting moved on to finance and a third Labour Councillor tried to find out where the £1·8 million underspend came from. Councillor Langstead didn’t get a straight answer at ‘People’ and John Husband didn’t at ‘Resources’.

The Agenda for ‘Places’ revealed a little bit of detail. Adults in need of care had been left at home longer before their residential placement. Every little helps but isn’t that a ‘People’ issue? Councillor Stefano Borella (Labour, North End) was not satisfied and asked for more detail to be provided. The odd thing was that Adults’ Services wasn’t mentioned within the subsequent discussion.

Stefano’s understanding was that Traffic &Transport, Community & Leisure and Regeneration & Growth all made a contribution. The responsible Council officer said he would respond privately to Councillors. So much for public meetings! However he mentioned in passing the waste contract, public conveniences and parking all making a saving.
Councillor Borella noted that the road repair budget was to be increased from £1·6m to £1·9m. and asked Cabinet Member Alex Sawyer what we could expect to see for it. He said That Councillor Linda Bailey had asked for her road to be resurfaced - presumably in jest - but the extra £300k. would allow pot holes to be fixed and if any Councillor brought issues to his attention he would be receptive to them.

Councillor Cheryl Bacon (Conservative, Cray Meadows) asked why the Leisure and Public Realm expenditure figures were changing so rapidly. She was told they were still under review and again the detail was not for public consumption.

Hackett SeymourCouncillor Danny Hackett asked about “Councillor Craske’s Budget Bonanza” - the probable sleight of hand that enabled him to restore £800k. of cuts in the lead up to the election. Danny too wanted to know the detail of where the money was coming from. The Chairman thought it would be both “unhelpful and counter-productive” to look at that in any detail.

Cabinet Member Craske nevertheless made a summary of what he planned to do, the regular deep clean of town centre streets etc. He set up his plan (trap?) for the opposition to vote against his plans - as the Tories do each year - but we learned nothing new which was presumably his intention.

Councillor Hackett obviously believes it is mainly sleight of hand too because he drew attention to the detail of the budget. Environmental Health is to get a £12,000 cut. Street Cleansing is down by £35,000 and Grounds Maintenance is down by about £18k. What sort of increase is that? “The public is being mis-sold, it is PR and spin. It is smoke and mirrors there is no [overall] increase.” Councillor Craske said he was “struggling to understand” and it was “Corbynomics”. He saw “no reason for anyone to oppose his plans”.

Councillor Hackett (Labour, Lesnes Abbey) wasn’t happy and asked for a straight answer as to whether the budget was an increase or a cut. The Chairman refused to allow the Head of Finance to say anything. Draw your own conclusions.

Councillor Joe Ferreira (Labour, Erith) referred to a similar series of cuts, best part of half a million pounds’ worth, all heralded as extra investment. Craskynomics? This time the Head of Finance was allowed to speak; for quite a long time actually, but there was no answer to Councillor Hackett’s question.

Councillor John Davey (Conservative, Lesnes Abbey, Crayford, West Heath, Where Next?) said that underspends come from good financial management and that is what residents want. Councillor Davey referred to litter and Tosser Craske said that over 1,800 fines (£140,000 approximately) had been issued, 78% had been paid and the break even point is 59%.

Councillors John Waters and Val Clarke both spoke in support of Councillor Craske’s proposals, Clarke suggesting that action to be taken against those late night establishments which encourage smoking adjacent to the Public Realm - and the associated litter. Councillor Brenda Langstead said that dropping fag ends was bad but fly tipping was worse and little was done about that. Should I mention Steve Didsbury again?

Council Officer David Bryce-Smith said that litter enforcement operated in many private car parks, with the permission of the owner. B&Q in Belvedere had withdrawn permission.

The Committee than moved on to discussing property deals, Old Farm Park and Erith Road in particular.

Under consideration is a scheme not to sell Old Farm Park, at least not in the way most of us envisaged. The idea is to develop the site in-house which would cost around £10 million and sell the houses for an estimated £22 million. Presumably this is one reason why Bexley is going to set up its own limited company.

There is a downside and that is that the money would not come in until 2020 instead of almost immediately, but the benefits overall would be considerable. The sale of the park was regrettable but with that decision now beyond the point of no return, the revised sale scheme appears to have a lot going for it.

The other rabbit taken from the hat at this meeting was the proposed sale of a Council owned site adjacent to Burstead Woods. It measures 4·4 acres (ten times the size of Old Farm Park) and the NHS Property Division, Oxleas NHS Trust and a doctor’s surgery all have interests there. Bexley Council also provides accommodation for people with learning difficulties on the site. The NHS is planning to quit the site and Bexley Council is eyeing it up.

They propose building 136 two bedroom apartments and 17 three bedroom houses, all for sale apart from 45 of the flats. Additionally 16 apartments for those with learning difficulties and the doctor’s surgery would be reprovided.

The costs involved are enormous. Site acquisition £9 million and another £38 million development costs. Following the sale of 108 dwellings the borrowing requirement would be only £3 million and rents would provide an income in the region of £250k. a year. The value of the retained flats is estimated to be £7 million.

It is a sign of the lengths to which Councils are having to go to balance the books. Maybe it’s my right of centre views which make me think that Bexley Council is being imaginative. (How many Councillors run building and estate agents businesses?)


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