Last night’s cabinet meeting was unusual for two reasons, firstly the
chairman Teresa O’Neill conducted it in a reasonable enough fashion and
secondly she had permitted a deputation. I have not seen that before at a cabinet meeting.
I sat at the provided table with my notebook while Elwyn Bryant sat alongside with his camera. The positioning is far from ideal and both of us could see only half the councillors. I placed my recorder in front of Elwyn hoping its microphones would have a better ‘view’ of proceedings.
The deputation was against the crazy idea of transferring Bexley’s archives to Bromley and it was presented by Ms. Penny Duggan. I say crazy because while there may be merit in transferring or merging back office functions to another borough, moving customer/public facing facilities is a different kettle of fish. How will those without cars or the wherewithal to pay the bus fare get a fair crack of the whip and the projected £41,000 saving doesn’t even match what the responsible cabinet member and his wife plunder from council funds? But what did the experts from the historical societies have to say about it?
Ms. Penny Duggan was their representative and she said she was backed by 3,251 signatories of a petition and the transfer would be “a catastrophic and irreversible mistake”. Councillor Don Massey had said that the archive is not a statutory requirement but Ms. Duggan countered that that was not entirely true. The 1972 Local Government Act requires the council to make proper arrangements for items in its custody which includes public access and educational needs. The Historical Manuscripts Commission is monitoring the situation.
Bexley council has not been able to say how the £41,000 saving is to be achieved, she said, but Bromley council has stated in an FOI response it has done no work on the proposal so it has no knowledge of possible costs and saving and was not expecting the proposal to be taken forward.
Bexley’s archives are currently rated the best in London and shouldn’t be destroyed. Projects undertaken because of the present facilities on offer have attracted £200,000 of grants in 2013. That was unlikely to be repeated following a transfer to Bromley. Local history is one of the few ways a council can engage with its residents, it encourages the community to have respect for its surroundings and that is something to be proud of.
Councillor Massey was the first to ask Ms. Duggan questions. He began by saying he did not wish to pick holes in Ms. Duggan’s argument but he needed to balance the budget. He wanted to know what the exact issue was. Was it accessibility? Ms. Duggan said it wasn’t, it went further than that. She mentioned the borough’s reputation and abandoning its heritage speaks volumes for those to whom it has been entrusted. Massey dismissed the statutory argument but offered to meet Ms. Duggan to discuss a possible compromise. She agreed of course but sounded less than enthusiastic about Massey’s ideas. Those that revolved around volunteers received short shrift. Volunteers are important but some things require a qualified archivist if valuable items are not to be mistreated or destroyed.
The volunteers do the cataloguing of artefacts and if their numbers fall because they can’t quickly and easily access the material it becomes useless. No catalogue equals no access. At present those volunteers give talks which encourage more interest by residents. A lack of volunteers would see that come to an end.
Councillor Melvin Seymour asked how much the volunteers could be asked to do but Ms. Duggan reiterated the need for some qualified help. She cited Erith Museum which failed because it could only call on volunteers.
Councillor Philip Read said a transfer to Bromley might only save £41,000 but lots of only forty one thousand pounds soon add up and there is a budget reduction to be met. The regular cabinet attendees are only too well aware of that. Six councillor couples can each take that sort of sum away annually and several have and do. Had Ms. Duggan thought how else savings could be made? That was difficult, she said, because no one would tell her what made up the £41,000.
From that point onwards Ms. Duggan was not allowed to speak but councillors continued to ask each other questions.
Councillor John Davey thought everything would eventually get digitised which would improve accessibility and lower costs. It is the way forward he said.
Councillor Chris Ball (Labour leader) asked the first probing questions not specifically designed to pander to Don Massey’s plan. He asked where the £41,000 came from and if an Equalities Impact Assessment had been made.
Teresa O’Neill said they had not asked for all the answers, she did not want all the answers, because that is why they were genuinely consulting people. And in repeat mode said “alI the answers are not there at the moment because we are genuinely consulting people”. I found that to be unusual logic but I’ve checked the tape a few times so I must have missed her point.
Don Massey said the £41,000 is mainly staff savings and an Equalities Impact Assessment had been done. Chris Ball asked the killer question. “Is the Impact Assessment publicly available?” Teresa O’Neill had to admit it hadn’t been done.
Councillor Ball said there wasn’t going to be much time to study the public’s comments, do the Assessment and “get Bromley on board”. Was he being pessimistic, he asked.
A council officer not visible from my position said that all these things were being worked on with a January target date. Then they may approach Bromley.
Teresa O’Neill then closed that section of the meeting by saying a decision would be made by March and twenty-odd people trooped out of the chamber. None of them with any cause for optimism I would have thought.