Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting started well, or at least the lead up to it did.
The barrier introduced by the late but unlamented Chief Executive Gill Steward had gone leaving Bexley’s mad axe murderers free to run amok without the need to be an Olympic hurdler. Fortunately there is an absolute dearth of Bexley residents intent on assaulting Councillors although the reverse is not absolutely true.
Another welcome move was that Council Leader Teresa O’Neill descended from her top table to ask the dozen ladies in the audience if they were there to hear the Hall Place discussions. They said they were and the Leader kindly shifted that subject from the back end of the Agenda to the beginning. I have seen other Chairmen, notably Peter Reader, do that but this may have been a first for the Leader.
It was a good move but it probably didn’t win over the Hall Place ladies; as they left 30 minutes later two of them said to me “Well that was a waste of time wasn’t it?”
I’m not sure what they expected. The meeting was an opportunity for Cabinet Member Craske to tell us how his ideas have developed over the last three months, not an opportunity to tell him where he has gone wrong.
Personally I am not at all sure he has. Yes the garden admission fee has doubled but the original low price was barely enough to pay the wages of the gateman and if all his plans come to fruition quite a lot is on offer for the price of a beer.
So what did Bexley Council’s premier showman have to say?
The site currently costs about £200,00 a year to run which is a lot less than in 2015 when it was run by trustees. Back then Hall Place was soaking up more than £500,000 by one means or another.
£620,000 from The Heritage Lottery Fund will pay for a new children’s playground, a new shop and an artisan market place plus improved seating. Beyond that the Welling District Model Railway Society will relocate its track from Falconwood to Hall Place and there should in due course be a new bridge over the river.
The proposed charge is £4, Senior Citizens £3 and Children over four years of age £2 with a 50% discount for Bexley residents and Peter Craske’s absolute guarantee of no charging for the car park. Garden access would remain free at least until after the new playground is built.
Councillor Craske said that Hall Place was “one of the greatest places in London and the South East. The house was built in 1537 and is a Grade I listed building and the garden covers 65 hectares and the topiary has been in place since 1953.”
“It is very expensive to operate and keep in good condition and it needs to generate an income which makes it financially independent.” Since the Council took over from The Heritage Trust “it has been bursting with life and has more visitors than ever before”.
In response to questioning Councillor Craske said the entrance fee will be for the formal gardens and not those close to the car park and the £8 fee for entering the house itself will include garden admission. Contrasting the admission fees with those extracted by the National Trust etc. he said the £4 maximum would be fully justified by the investment and he was looking into Season and Family ticket pricing.
The detailed design stage has not been reached and they will require planning permission which will give an opportunity for comment and dissent if there is any. He hoped his plans would “not become a political matter, we should all be supporting them.”
Councillor Borella (Labour, Slade Green & North End) welcomed the plans particularly the introduction of model trains. He went on to say that passengers alighting at the nearest bus stops “would not know where Hall Place is” because there are no signs and there were none from Bexley Village and the station either.
He said he understood that car parking charges could not be applied because of the contract with Miller & Carter and he is absolutely correct and the situation has been confirmed at Scrutiny meetings in the past. Bexley Tories have recently distanced themselves from any suggestion that they have ever sought to impose charges at Hall Place despite Cabinet Member Craske having proposed their introduction in the Council’s Strategy 2014 plans.
Councillor Stefano Borella quickly recognised that it is impossible to embarrass Councillor Craske so he quickly moved on but later in the meeting Councillor Craske was emphatic that there would be no parking charges. Council Leader O’Neill was more circumspect. Contracts can change. “Charges could actually be introduced but we are not choosing to do so.”
Stefano was not entirely happy with the imposition of charges for the garden. He said in the past the Council had invested in Public Works without the imposition of fees. “Council Tax payers in Bexley will wonder what they pay their increased Council Tax for.” He didn’t say so but it is not totally dissimilar to the Bin Tax. Suddenly there is a charge for what used to be free but you don’t absolutely have to pay it. Hall Place charges will be very easily avoidable.
He was absolutely right when he said that he “did not think many residents knew this was going to happen” and then added “and it is bad news”. Opinions on that will no doubt vary.
Councillor John Davey (Conservative, West Heath) was “a bit concerned” about the lack of space for the art gallery.
Councillor Linda Bailey said she visited such attractions around the country and never been to one where she did not have to pay. She thought the opposition comments were unjustified.
Note: Some of the figures given above came from Deputy Director for Leisure, Toni Ainge.