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was a massive turnout at last night’s Cabinet meeting. Very nearly a full house
of Councillors and the usual four members of the public squeezed into the
Council Chamber, Tories sitting cheek by jowl with Labour members, all to hear
the new slimline Teresa O’Neill stage manage the budget proposals.
And stage managed it was, the script was a corker but the underlying story was closer to scam.
It began with Alison Griffin delivering her formal address.
The future is uncertain she said and public finances are under pressure however the Council has shown that it can cope. 95% of the savings programme for this year has already been delivered.
The Council signed up for the four year deal with Government and the settlement was largely as anticipated, however there has been a reduction in the New Homes Bonus and some rearrangements to the Social Care precept (the extra 2% on Council Tax). Houses built only after a successful planning appeal will not attract the New Homes Bonus. Do I detect a Government trying to influence planning decisions again?
Overall the Government support grant has been reduced by 30% this year. Extensive adjustments to an Excel spreadsheet led Ms. Griffin to her proposal that Bexley’s Council Tax rate should increase by the maximum allowable amount of 1·99% plus 2% Social Care precept for the second consecutive year. There will be no call on reserves.
Lord Massey of Rochester, the Cabinet Member for Finance Don Massey said that local authorities generally - and he referred to Surrey County Council which has proposed a 15% tax increase - “are in a precarious place” but “Bexley remains in reasonable shape”. In a reference to the London Living Wage he said “well meaning but ultimately rash decisions in finance terms” should be avoided.
Bexley continues to be given “a relatively low amount from Government compared to other boroughs and we continue to lobby for a fairer allocation but in contrast to other authorities we will not need a massive increase in tax to balance our books next year. Keeping tax as low as possible is the right and proper thing to do”.
However you can be absolutely certain that that won’t stop Bexley tying for top place (worst) in London when setting Council Tax for next year.
The actual rate will be announced at the next Cabinet Meeting on 20th February.
Councilor Craske then adopted his best showman persona to announce the plans he had for his portfolio. It was a cross between a Petticoat Lane stall holder selling his wares at knock down prices and a Chancellor with pre-election money to give away, money previously stolen from a gullible public.
He said he was going to make the borough cleaner (didn’t he slash the street cleaning budget a couple of years ago?), greener (who was it who stopped all tree planting?) and safer (he stopped routine monitoring of the CCTV).
To address the safety issues he was going to spend an extra £135,000 on community safety. After a shaky start on Food Safety Bexley has got back on course and the Food Safety Team is going to get another £48,000 for an extra member of staff.
The Garden Waste Service has been a success and over 50% of residents now find themself forced to cough up the Bin Tax. The team running it will get an extra £26,000. (One part time post.)
Friends Groups, like the one running Sidcup’s Walled Garden, will collectively get another £40,000 in 2017/18.
The borough’s 18 car parks are cleaned twice a week at a cost of £40,000 a year but the multi-storeys are almost inevitably filthy by design. They will be taken out of the £40,000 budget, given a deep clean and redecorated. Another £83,000 this year and £43,000 thereafter.
The grass cutting budget which was slashed barely a year ago is to be raised by £50,000 Craske teasingly said, but no, make that £90,000.
The tree budget of £40,000 scrapped soon after the Tories came to power is to be reinstated. He couldn’t equal that Councillor Craske said, and reaching for a pair of fluffy ears deep inside his top hat, announced it would be raised to £70,000 by 2018/19. “It will transform our borough. it will be far greener and healthier” he said apparently unaware of the several sites of scientific interest which are succumbing to the bulldozers.
The four main town centres are swept daily and this will be improved following the acquisition of a new street cleaning vehicle capable of deep cleaning. It will be able to thoroughly clean the main shopping centres “every single week” and the lesser ones at least once a month. He is looking for a name for it. Any ideas?
£243,000 has been allocated to the cleaning of residential streets.
He was “proud of these proposals” and in a characteristic wind up of the opposition members said he “couldn’t imagine any one of them being against these proposals".
And where do you think that money has suddenly come from? Well I think it was Cabinet Member Philip Read who gave the game away when he made a distinction (I will check the recording later) between compulsory taxes and voluntary taxes.
The latter will be a none too subtle reference to the additional stealth taxes imposed on residents in recent months. The few figures available at this early stage suggest that the litter wardens and the Welling Yellow Money Boxes are raising enough to cover all of Peter Craske’s prestidigitation.
He has pulled a cunning stunt which part of me admires in the same way that I sort of admire the criminal minds who got him off the blogging rap. But I think I would admire him more if he had pulled the stunt a few years ago and spent the money on vital services such as SEN children or making sure youths don’t riot in Northumberland Heath. But you don’t notice these things every day of the week, more trees and footpaths free of chewing gum may well be a vote winner and that is what it is all about.