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Bonkers Blog February 2017

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21 February (Part 1) - Council tax is up. What did the Cabinet have to say about it?

O'Neill StewardThe Council Tax setting Cabinet meeting took the same format as most Cabinet meetings. Leader Teresa O’Neill asked people to speak, the Finance officers repeated dire warnings of the perils that lie ahead, a couple of Cabinet braggarts told us how they had triumphed against terrifying odds and made Bexley a better place to live, Councillor Craske threw in a few crumbs of comfort among a myriad of budget cuts and dared the opposition to vote against them.

The Chief Executive Gill Steward, whose principal achievements so far are to erect a barrier between public and Councillors and fix the ladies toilets, did nothing apart from staring down my lens. Business as usual.

I will admit that pointing it in her direction is in direct retaliation for her removing the Press Desk from the chamber. When Steward joined Bexley Council the decision to increase tensions was hers, she didn’t have to but the pea brain thought it was the best way ahead. Human Psychology is not her strong point. What is?

Before the meeting really got under way Councillors were asked to agree that the public - all three of us - be slung out for the discussion on Appendix B to Agenda item 6 which discusses the Council’s plan to get into the house building business. Cabinet Members Craske and Massey were first in the queue to agree that secrecy was a good idea.

Why it has to be kept secret I have no idea, except that Bexley Council is addicted to secrecy. It looks like a decent enough plan to me which will probably be widely welcomed. Potentially dangerous only when Bexley’s new commercial enterprise starts to be given preference over the regular developers.

The Leader immediately got stuck in to the important announcement of the night. The Social Care precept will be 2% and not the maximum permitted 3% meaning that local taxes will be increased by a total of 3·99%. A Band D property will be taxed at £1,524.19 in the coming year

The Senior Finance Manager reported that most of the £20 million of budget reduction for 2016/17 had been achieved and there was likely to be an underspend of £1·8 million by the end of the financial year. Government grants will disappear by 2020 and taxes, fees and charges will be 73% of the Council’s income next year. The 2017/18 budget will introduce another £18 million of cuts budget reductions but £340 million will be spent. Reserves against risk are considered adequate.

It was also stated that adoption of the London Living Wage would add up to £10 million to costs and as Cabinet Member Don Massey later confirmed, the proposal by Labour members had been rejected.

Griffin MasseyThe Finance Director Alison Griffin added very little apart from thanking the staff involved in producing the budget.

Cabinet Member Don Massey did much the same. He said that two thirds of Councils are dipping into their reserves this year but Bexley is not.

He then proceeded to give the detail on why he had rejected the proposal that Bexley becomes a London Living Wage (LLW) borough. He accepted that most London boroughs pay their staff the LLW but Bexley will not adopt such a policy.

It was claimed that most staff are already paid above the LLW rate and Councillor Massey was particularly scathing about Labour’s proposal that local businesses should be offered incentives to be Living Wage employers.

Councillor Esther Amaning (Labour, Lesnes Abbey) thought the decision was “quite disgraceful”.

Councillor Craske was naturally keen to remind everyone that he had reversed a few of the cuts he had made previously and a new street cleaning vehicle had been trialled in the Broadway to good effect.

Craske ReadThe trees budget will go up to £70,000 in 2018/19 and large numbers of residents have been telling him how much they appreciate his change of mind. One must wonder how when the only news of it is hidden away on an obscure page of the Council’s website. Oh, I forgot, a few tens of thousands have looked at last month’s blogs.

In the coming year there will be 200 new trees. Quite how many will be chopped down in Old Farm Park was not stated.

Councillor Craske taunted the opposition who will be forced to vote against the £18 million of cuts offset by 200 saplings. It’s a clever tactic and it seems to work every year. Wait for some gloating about Labour being against trees on one of the Tory sponsored web pages.

Cabinet Member Philip Read is another Tory whose principal skill lies in taunting the opposition party. They have long campaigned for higher Council Taxes but that would be “immoral”.

Savings in the Child Care budget had been achieved by a reduction in the numbers cared for by Bexley Council. Down from 285 eighteen months ago to 236 now.

The “prophets of impending doom” who were “ill informed and ignorant now have egg on their face” had been proved wrong but they are too thick to realise it. Well actually “their sense of self-importance will prevent them from appreciating that simple fact”.

Philip Read can be given credit for the part he played in rescuing Bexley from its ignominious failure to protect Bexley’s children for which some paid with their life but thankfully he still provides ample opportunities for criticism.

Cabinet Member Brad Smith (Adults’ Services) said that Bexley gets far fewer complaints about its services than neighbouring boroughs. Perhaps he would like to come with me on my twice weekly visit to the cancer ward at Queen Elizabeth Hospital. No visitor there, or patient well enough to speak has a good word to say about any aspect of Bexley’s care services. As Councillor Brenda Langstead said, all the charges have been put up considerably. “It is not decent or fair”.

Councillor Stefano Borella (Labour, North End) said the budget was for the election year. Grounds maintenance had been cut by £53,000, £450,000 cut from street cleaning, £150,000 taken from waste collection and £220,000 from CCTV surveillance but now the Council was headlining “alleged increases which reduce the cuts already agreed”.

The detail of the £1·8million underspend had been hidden but he knew that £600,000 came from Traffic & Transport, nearly all of it from additional Penalty Charge Notices, presumably the moving traffic offences (the yellow boxed piggy banks).

Read LeafCouncillor John Davey (Conservative, wards vary) said the Labour members were talking rubbish, I’m not sure if he meant recycling or gibberish, and then proceeded to put the boot into the LLW idea. “Residents cannot afford this sort of thing. Labour is irresponsible.”

Councillor David Leaf said that Labour members were “playing up to the webcast. Not a single one has welcomed Councillor Craske’s trees etc.” instead they “literally throw their toys out of the pram. They lack the expertise to do the costings. It is astonishing but that is the Labour Party for you”.

He reminded everyone that in 2006 “Labour whacked the Council Tax up” but what he forgot to say is that under the Conservatives it never came down again. Relative to other London boroughs Bexley is every bit as bad now as it was then.

Before Alison Griffin was able to answer Councillor Borella’s question about the Traffic & Transport underspend (Lord Massey of Rochester described it as a “tirade”) Cabinet Member Craske once again slipped in one of his jibes about the likelihood of Labour ignoring his small beer commitment to trees and street cleaning and vote against the big cuts to Children’s and Adults’ Services.

After a few words from Deputy Leader Rob Leitch, Councillor Craske repeated his taunting of the Labour group and their voting intentions.

Ms. Griffin was eventually able to say a few words. She confirmed what Councillor Borella had said about the transport underspend. Half a million “of additional income” is coming from “traffic contraventions”. This rather blew apart Cabinet Member Alex Sawyer’s contention that yellow box junction cameras were introduced for safety reasons, but you knew he was being economic with the actualité already, so nothing new there then.

The Cabinet then voted to adopt the Council Tax rise recommendations.

I judged that I had gathered quite enough detail for another blog and decided to leave early before the public was thrown out. Since I had a pretty good idea what was up for discussion thanks to what I think might be a disgruntled Tory an early night seemed more than usually attractive.


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