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News and Comment December 2011

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14 December (Part 1) - Public cabinet meeting

Maybe that is not an appropriate title because the council leader Teresa O’Neill appears to have dreamed up a new way of defeating democracy. Usually, no, every time before yesterday, if one arrives in the Council Chamber around 7:15 most of the cabinet members will be found sitting in their places in friendly preliminary discussions. Yesterday they all filed out of an adjacent meeting room with two minutes to spare, ignored the public totally, and 32 minutes later filed back into their meeting room to continue whatever they were really up to last night. There was nothing in the adjacent room to suggest it was a Christmas party, it was just another empty room so it looks as though Bexley council has hit upon the perfect way of minimising scrutiny.

Only five members of the public had turned out to watch proceedings, the usual suspects including the local Notomob representative. He had expressed a wish to examine the visage of councillor Craske after his PATAS defeat but Craske got the better of everyone. He arrived at the very last moment and sat below the raised viewing area so that all that could be seen of him was the top of his head from the rear. I can confirm that his ears were of a suitable hue.

Despite its brevity and the dress-rehearsal having been conducted entirely out of public view the meeting was not without its interesting moments.

Early on in the proceedings councillor Katie Perrior said she did not want to “keep banging on” about the top award by Ofsted for Bexley’s fostering service and then did precisely that. It would appear that neither she nor Ofsted is aware that the Local Government Ombudsman considered Bexley worthy of a ‘fine’ of £12,741.08 for failures in that area of activity. Ms. Perrior also proudly told us that Ofsted has reported that Bexley is “performing adequately” in other areas of children’s services. Ofsted’s definition of “Performs adequately” is “Meets only minimum requirements”.

In reports from senior council officers we were told that on 30th September 2011 the council had investments of £105.6 million and long-term debt of £103.3 million. The ‘savings account’ had earned £0.7 million of interest during the first six months of 2011 and the ‘personal loan’ was costing £4.75 million a year in interest. Think about it.

Bexley village libraryMr. Tuckley said that the “financial challenges facing the council remain very substantial” - which sounded like code for ‘we are heading for trouble’ - and went on to recommend a pay freeze for staff. Councillor Deadman put in a word for the low paid but no cabinet member said anything about it, it was as if he hadn’t been there at all, no acknowledgement of his words whatsoever. The pay freeze was approved.

Councillor Peter Catterall told us of his proposals for Bexley village library. Councillor Catterall usually comes across as a thoughtful and caring man slightly out of place among a metaphorical den of thieves.

Maybe I am swayed by the fact he told me “Being held to account by people like yourself is very useful” and “I’m certainly not sensitive about what you put on your site, which was scrupulously accurate”. He seems a ‘good egg’ worthy of his electors’ support. I can only hope that his plan for Bexley library is a success.

Boots Book Lover's libraryCouncillor Catterall’s plan involves handing Bexley library over to a group called Bexley Village Community Library (BVCL). They have a few changes in mind; CDs and DVDs will no longer be on loan but they will offer to sell them instead. They say this “will release customers from the burden of due dates and fines”. Confusingly they aim to add to that burden for books. The free loan period is likely to reduce from three to two weeks and fines will go up. Alternatively customers can pay £24 a year for extended loan periods and no fines. The philanthropic can opt to pay £75 a year for “Gold membership’ with as yet unspecified benefits. When I was a lad Boots the Chemist ran a library (as it did in all large towns) not far from the public one and it failed because unlike the latter it was not free.

BVCL’s activities will extend to computers and coffee. The computers will be networked independently of the council libraries so there is scope for no censorship of sites critical of Bexley council. Windows PCs may be augmented by Apple Macs and the opening hours will be 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday.

Possibly the most significant threat to the plan comes from Bexleyheath library. Longer loan times, cheaper fines, more books and only six minutes away on very frequent buses.

You will presumably be wondering what huge contribution the new scheme will make to alleviating Will Tuckley’s “financial challenge”. It is hoped, if all goes according to plan, that it might be enough to pay his salary for just a little over two months. £40,000 a year.

The plan was endorsed by councillor Colin Campbell who gave every impression of relishing the idea of competition for an internet café in a nearby hairdresser’s shop. I have no idea why he should look forward to the demise of a local business but whatever reason he had in mind it was in one respect the most significant comment of the whole half hour charade. It was the only thing that you couldn’t read in the Agenda. The meeting really was a total waste of time, most of it had been conducted behind closed doors.

Councillor Catterall’s library plan was approved. Good luck Peter, imaginative but perhaps a bit of a gamble. And congratulations Teresa for finding a new way of subverting democracy. Crude rather than imaginative but it demonstrates your council’s true colours very effectively.


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