week’s Scrutiny meeting was another of Bexley Council’s combination jobs
bringing together all the Councillors and officials with Adults’, Children’s and wider Communities interests.
Not being a ‘standard’ Scrutiny Committee meeting it required a Chairman to be elected. Councillor Cafer Munur who normally chairs Adults’ and Children graciously suggested that Councillor Caroline Newton who chairs Communities should do the honours at the joint meeting.
This was of course a pre-arranged sham but a necessary one. Councillor Newton could not have done the job as well as she did without preparing for it in advance.
The Joint meeting of the Children’s and Adults’ Services and Communities Overview and Scrutiny Committees was the second big Council meeting in the space of a week in which members of the public were not constrained by a barrier, a nonsense introduced by Chief Executive Gill Steward who left Bexley under a cloud last July.
The aforesaid MoPs consisted of just me.
The meeting was remarkable for another reason too. The number of Councillors who have never acknowledged my presence at Council meetings over the past nine years fell from 24 to 23. One more to go and more than half of them will have at least made a nod in my direction. What an unpleasant bunch most of them appear to be.
There were two big subjects up for discussion loosely described as looking after vulnerable people and looking after over-weight people.
One of Bexley’s claims to fame is that its residents are the fattest in South East London and its children are the second fattest in London. The fattest areas of Bexley are Thamesmead, Belvedere and Slade Green in that order. An excess of takeaways was said to be a major factor but Councillor Mabel Ogundayo (Labour, Thamesmead East) doubted it, she was aware of only one Chicken Shop in the whole of her ward.
The problem was described by Joanne Ferry who describes herself as Bexley’s Senior Public Health Specialist as “an obesity epidemic”. Three out of ten of the borough’s youngest children are overweight and the majority of adults. She is looking for a 2% reduction in numbers over the next five years which will mean reversing the current upward trend.
She aims to work with “local business and food outlets to provide healthier options”. Limiting new fast food outlets, too many of them are in close proximity to schools, and introducing “healthy streets” (for easier walking and cycling) along with better use of parks are all on the table.
There has been “a normalisation of obesity” and to combat it more breast feeding, “best infant feeding options”, and vouchers for fresh fruit and vegetables are all being looked at. Inspiration and motivation are the dominant themes, not compulsion.
The nicely rounded Councillor James Hunt asked what had happened to all the other obesity strategies introduced over the past five years. “Are we starting again?”
He didn’t want to see “tyrannical” health visitors insisting on all mothers breast feeding either. “It didn’t suit everyone” and he was told it was not the only option.
He asked how it would be possible to restrict new fast food outlets within 400 metres of a school. He was told that it was “an explicitly stated” directive from Mayor Sadiq Khan. Apparently his ambitions extend to preventing children’s access to chips but not to their supplies of cutlery.
Dr. Anjan Ghosh (Director of Public Health) chose to answer the starting again question. He said that “whatever we did before hasn’t worked” and the problems are now being “tackled on an individual by individual basis”.
Councillor Alan Downing (Conservative, St. Mary’s & St. James) who is very good at putting his finger on the real world problems faced by real residents suggested that Dr. Ghosh get himself down to Homeleigh (homeless accommodation) where 24 rooms share a kitchen which has one microwave with no work surfaces, no tables and no chairs. Residents are effectively compelled to go with their children to the nearest take away. It has been left that way for two and a half years, he said. “Homeleigh is disgusting.”
Councillor Eileen Pallen (Conservative, Bexleyheath) noted that children used buses even for 100 yard hops and thought that TfL should limit the number of totally free rides. “It will be doing the children a favour.” Most readers will think that is a very sensible idea but it did not go down too well with Ms. Ferry.
Councillor Cafer Munur (Conservative, Blackfen & Lamorbey) thought that over eating for reasons of comfort and stress reduction and other possibly mental health related issues was missing from the strategy and “wondered what we should be doing about that”. His point was accepted.
Councillor Esther Amaning (Labour, Thamesmead East) said that while helping out in food banks she noted that a lot of food being distributed could not be described as healthy eating.
Councillor Sue Gower (Conservative, Bexleyheath) suggested that the Strategy looked back at the work done within the Sure Start and Children’s Centre programme which identified a shortage of fresh fruit and vegetable supplies, for the less well off community presumably. “You cannot buy fresh bananas on a Monday morning in Erith. Morrisons is a bus ride away, families will just buy what is available.” The problem is that “parenting skills have not been transferred down and the cheaper cuts of meat are unknown”. She said parents should be shown how to use slow cookers.
“The Cinema and the Bowling Alley, even if you do want something healthy you can’t get it because they don’t sell it. Preloading by young people [with alcohol] is calorific. I was told the other day of a young person going out who could not afford many drinks who drank half a bottle of port.”
Councillor John Davey (Conservative, West Heath) said that the fast food outlets were there because there was a demand for them so the demand should be tackled. Sometimes it is down to people’s culture but referring to a the map of Bexley’s takeaways he backed Councillor Ogundayo’s observation. There is no correlation between their number and obesity.
He made the point that people coming from abroad where there are frequent famines may be feeding their children extra when they can because that is their culture. More education is required.
Councillor Sybil Camsey (Conservative, Crook Log) thought that the Strategy’s emphasis on education would put extra pressures on schools which they could ill afford. Some are already struggling with the free school meals budget and the price of meals pushes parents towards packed lunches.
That‘s it. I’m off to raid the fridge.