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News and Comment March 2021

Index: 20202021

4 March (Part 5) - A slightly alternative budget

Unfortunately the image of Labour’s budget amendment (below) was not readable when put up on screen last night and the copy below has gone through an amount of Photoshopping. Maybe that is proof that the Conservatives didn’t read it.

It is similar to Councillor Hackett’s in that it asks Councillors to forego their 3% increase to allowances but additionally rubs salt into the Capitalisation Order wound. It says that 16·8% of the overspend (about £450k.) was Covid related and 74·4% was due to budgeting inadequacies. Where the missing 10% went is not explained.

The amendment looks to redirecting the allowances allocation (£45,542) to community libraries, direct CIL funds to affordable housing and to reduce the highways maintenance budget by less than is planned. (The budget that @bexleynews claims has been increased.)

If that was not pushing their luck too far already they thought that the Council should also apologise to residents for their service cuts and job losses.

Councillor Borella’s speech in favour of the amendment was largely ignored. His reminder that Labour’s ideas for service improvements, dealing with the housing crisis (which were voted down) and how it was Labour that first put Bexley at the top of the recycling league, all fell on stony ground.

He reeled off a long list of Council cuts and price increases. Reduced library opening hours, scrapping the three mobile libraries, £2·5 million cut to waste and street services, less grass cutting and highways maintenance, increases to parking charges (up 30% next month), garden waste up 25%, 16% staff cuts. (264 posts.)

In a statement of the obvious he said that Bexley Council was attempting to blame all its financial ills on Covid. He quoted Robert Jenrick the government minister’s comment about “very poor management”. In Bromley, he said, their David Leaf equivalent spoke of the incompetence on display in Bexley.

Councillor Joe Ferreira (Erith) seconded the motion. In a reference to the allowance issue he said that “we are asking our staff to make the harshest of the savings and it is only right that we do our part too”.

Labour leader Daniel Francis gave a brief history of how the auditor, the Finance Director and himself had all issued warnings about the impending financial calamity.

Council Leader Teresa O'Neill referred to Councillors not taking the increased allowance in 2020/21 but contrary to @bexleynews contention earlier today, nothing whatsoever about 2021/22. Looks like their Tweet is mischievous; but you knew that anyway.

Almost needless to say Cabinet Members Craske and Leaf had to have their say with the latter referring to Labour’s “rank hypocrisy and “gimmickry” and said that when Labour gained power all their Councillors received various special responsibility allowances.

By contrast Cabinet Member Louie French was logical and restrained in his criticism of the amendment.

Councillor Sally Hinkley (Labour, Belvedere) tried to bring the debate back on topic with her comment that one party wants to increase expenditure on libraries and one wants to reduce it.

Despite Councillor Ferreira saying “the money is available” his follow up plea for common decency and fairness was rejected.
Budget amendment

Labour’s budget amendment.

 

4 March (Part 4) - Not such bad guys after all

I have a confession to make, Councillor Hackett told me a week ago of his proposed budget amendment and then went quiet as is his wont. I did a Boris Johnson and wrote two blogs one assuming that Danny would gain support and the other that he wouldn’t. As a result I was able to post his news within a minute or two of it happening.

But maybe too clever by half because just a few minutes later it became clear why the Labour Councillors weren’t keen on his idea, they had their own plans for the £45,542.

They wanted it handed to the voluntary library groups.

The upshot of it all is that Councillor Hackett comes across as the good guy, the Conservatives the bad guys and Labour the not so bad guys after all.
Budget amendment

Click image to see Labour’s Press Release.

 

4 March (Part 3) - Back pedalling

WebcastThe next Full Council meeting item was Councillor Hackett’s budget amendment hurriedly reported yesterday evening. Since then the Tory pot has been calling the Labour kettle black. (Are we still allowed to say that?)

As you might expect the Conservatives are back pedalling furiously.

It may not have been clear from yesterday’s report but Bexley did not freeze Councillor allowances last year, they rose in line with inflation. There was however a gentleman’s agreement (am I allowed to say that any more?) among all Councillors not to claim the increase. They could do so at any time but none have so the money accumulates in some sort of suspense account.

When the gentleman’s agreement ceases they pick up an enhanced allowance. If it was frozen they wouldn’t.

Danny Hackett’s amendment proposed that the agreement should be extended for another year which would have put £45,542 into the suspense pot. The total of both years.

The Conservatives are now claiming that Labour is making up the claim that Councillor allowances are going up despite the fact that they have allocated £22,484 to do exactly that.

Furthermore they claim that they committed to refusing to accept the increase in allowances as long ago as last December. Freezing allowances and voluntarily not taking an increase are very different things. One is for all time and the other isn’t.

If the December claim is true why did Councillor Hackett think it necessary to propose his amendment? If it was redundant why did no one tell him? If the Conservatives had pre-empted him why did they refuse to support him?

You can be pretty sure that some untruthfulness lies at the heart of the matter.

Today December

The reference to not increasing allowances for eight years is curious. Why no mention of the 2019/20 agreement not to take the increase? One could be forgiven for thinking that the December announcement was a reference to last year. That would explain their failure to support Danny Hackett last night. The cut referred to is almost three years old and took eight years from its first mention to implementation.

 

4 March (Part 2) - A new Leaf

WebcastThe next speaker was the irrepressible Cabinet Member David Leaf. Fortunately the Mayor told him he could speak for only five minutes. Councillor Leaf said “this is a budget which has shaped by Covid but it is a shining light of hope. It is a budget to Build Back Better. Before the pandemic struck we knew we faced a challenge and tough choices. We took early action because we knew there was a substantial gap to fill.” He too referred to the review of the local government funding formula being deferred due to Covid.

“We put forward proposals for consultation and have given due regard to the thousands of responses.” (If you read through those responses you will find a wide spectrum of views. It is not difficult to choose those which suit the Council best.)

“We made provision for extra headroom should we need it and we went through many Scrutiny and Cabinet meetings with our plans encouraging all Member engagement. It has been a difficult process because of the uncertainty but we did not give in to pessimism and we did not surrender to difficulty. We stand on the side of residents and businesses at this time of need. This budget invests over £200 million in a multi-year capital programme. We choose to Invest in the Public Realm and BexleyCo and new libraries. We choose to invest £177 million in revenue spending; the vital services, adults, children and people with disabilities. Our budget will stand the test of time. It will Build Back Better.”

Three seconds under five minutes and no criticism of the Labour Group. Surely a first?

A careful choice of words half succeeded in concealing the propaganda message that ‘investment’ would amount to £248 million. As noted earlier, most of it is just bog standard spending.
Spending

 

4 March (Part 1) - Leading off

RecordingQuite often I only lend half an ear to live Council webcasts and record them for later but last night I hung on to every word. I listened in vain for the magic £248 million of investment to be identified but the figure remained elusive.

Fortunately the Agenda identifies that investment and reveals it to be only £71 million to go on “infrastructure, development and facilities to deliver benefits to residents”. The rest of it goes on day to day things like emptying the bins which most people will not identify as investment.

All meetings start with declarations of interest and as the Mayor James Hunt remarked it might be easier to ask which Councillors have not got financial interests in the Council. The list of those who have given themselves or family members paid jobs is not a short one.

Overall I felt it was an interesting meeting and the Leadership did a good job of passing the financial buck to inadequate Government grant formulas and the Opposition Members did a good job of exposing Council deception of the type so beloved of the Tory propaganda machine @bexleynews.

Leader Teresa O’Neill referred to Covid creating “a whirlwind but residents have been put first. The budget we set last year changed dramatically and Covid impacted our services and changed the way the Council spent its money”.

“Thankfully we received grants from Government as well as compensation towards lost income which has helped.”

“We consulted on all our proposals with over 4,000 responses and we took our balanced budget to Public Cabinet before Christmas.”

“Members will recall that we were advised of a late overspend to the 2019/20 accounts after the end of that financial year of about £2·5 million, reduced to £2·1 million when an underspend was uncovered. £1·6 million was housing related. The £2·1 million was taken from our General Fund Reserve reducing it to £10 million but restored by a schools grant during 2020/21. It was only £5·6 million in 2006.” (The year Labour left office.)

The talks on a Capitalisation Order began in late Summer 2020. It was for “headroom to be used only if absolutely necessary. We are no Croydon. It is prudent management. We spend the second lowest amount on Social Care in London and we are recognised as being a low spending authority.”

“We need a fair funding review. Ours is £39·973 million, Greenwich’s is £109·2 despite their affluence which does not exist in Bexley. Lewisham’s is £123·3 and Southwark’s is £152·5. What could we do with more than £100 million more? The formula is outdated and sets an unfair playing ground.”

“The same formula is used for Covid grants compounding the problem. Our Public Health grant is the lowest in London. If it was to be the average of South London boroughs we would get an extra £8 million. £14·5 million extra if raised to the level of Lambeth. It impacts the Council Tax rise we are having to set.”

“We have a big job to do next year. We owe it to those who have suffered to Build Back Better.”

 

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