I had hoped that Councillor Peter Craske might explain what he had in mind when he Tweeted about good news yesterday but he said nothing in the ‘stand out’ category and very little we haven’t heard before at last night’s Cabinet meeting.
Cabinet Meetings are inevitably quite civilised affairs these days, it is after all just seven people (only six last night) spouting about plans they have all agreed beforehand and none of them will mention those areas on which Bexley Council has been failing, affordable housing and transport infrastructure for example.
Additionally the webcasts and the likelihood of a report on BiB has all but eradicated the personal and political insults which used to be a regular feature. Cabinet Member Philip Read’s little dig at the Labour opposition was quite mild by comparison.
Leader Teresa O’Neill said at the outset that Bexley Council fully intended to “live very much within our means” and in what has become pretty much the standard format a Finance Officer formally reported on the current situation. There will be a balanced budget.
Cabinet Member Don Massey (Finance) said the future remained challenging but claimed as successes increased financial reserves, improved care services, Belvedere Beach, good schools and the move to the new Civic Offices in 2014. The Council “has not been cutting, it has been improving”.
The increase to the Council Tax base is “more than expected and a pleasant surprise” which should benefit Council Tax payers.
Bexley’s pay bill is £64 million, a figure which excludes education, and a minimum 2% increase is likely in the coming year, the average being 2·7%.
Cabinet Member Peter Craske’s (Leisure etc.) report was a little more exciting. Among the highlights were that the tree planting budget is to double - 300 over recent months - and a far cry from his decision to charge individual residents directly for street trees only a handful of years ago.
The new street cleaning machine has been more active in town centres than anticipated, more than once a week in Bexleyheath and every fortnight in lesser centres.
The food safety team has been augmented and Which? now rates Bexley as the most improved borough in the UK, only of course because the Consumer Association rated it the worst when the scheme started. Bexley Council took issue with their original findings and explained why Which?’s poor rating was invalid but the contrast boosts their egos so they will now happily accept the statistical fluke.
The Community Safety budget has been increased by £135,000, domestic violence being a priority.
“Libraries are flourishing” and in Crayford the increase in footfall has been 87% in the past month. The co-siting of a Post Office which opened on 13th December will be responsible for that.
Another success story is Hall Place which the Council took over last April. In the final year of Heritage Trust control the house achieved 6,000 visitors but 5,500 followed them in the first nine months of Council control.
A number of initiatives, exhibitions etc. in the house and grounds have seen the total number of visitors reach 15,000. To improve competitiveness in the lucrative wedding market Hall Place hire charges have been reduced significantly. Nine hours’ hire drops from £4,300 to £3,550.
The priority for Adult Social Care (Cabinet Member Brad Smith) continues to be ‘prevention’ which is much cheaper than mopping up neglected problems later, and efficiency. Nevertheless the budget must be increased from £56·1m last year to £64·47 million this.
Cabinet Member Philip Read claimed that Children’s Service have come a long way in the past few years. “They must continue to evolve and modernise in a way our taxpayers can afford.” Tax increases “risk creating resentment and hardship and are counter-productive.”
Temporary staff in Children’s Services are down to 11% compared to 70% in 2013. It looks like he has done a pretty good job there.
After bragging about commendable improvements since he took on the responsibility for Children’s Services Philip Read could not resist an unnecessary and not wholly truthful barb directed at the opposition party. He said that they had predicted a £50 million black hole by 2018. The figure may well have been mentioned but only if everyone sat around and fell into it. That was never likely to be allowed whichever party was in charge.
Cabinet Member Linda Bailey was sure residents would elect another Conservative Council in May but mainly set her sights on attacking Mayor Khan; and not without justification.
The Zone 1 Mayor’s “London Plan was not helpful [to our Growth Strategy]” and Councillor Bailey was “very very disappointed. It has been written for central London and it doesn’t work in Bexley and it is horrific”.
In particular it speaks of increasing the number of units to be built each year but “limited on former industrial sites” which "is integral to Bexley’s Growth Strategy”.
“Residents will be really angry about the proposals for high density housing in town centres and urban areas and to cap it all he wants no parking. It is absolutely ludicrous and residents will not like it at all.”
Cabinet Member Alex Sawyer was also critical of the Mayor. Unlike Bexley Council “he does not think outside the box” but instead just passes government cuts down the line. “He cut the local corridor funding by £200,000” over what was agreed last May. Other cuts will have a serious impact on road repairs however after Councillor Sawyer protested the Mayor has restored the money required to continue with school crossing patrols.
I found it surprising that no Labour Councillor took up the invitation to comment.
The audience other than your reporter consisted of one Bexley staff member and a Labour Party activist and the meeting lasted just under one hour. Summarising it took far longer!
Council Press Release.