Even the most exciting of council meetings have their boring bits and at some
of the more obscure ones the bore quotient can reach 100%. If I see
‘Finance and Corporate Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee’ on the
council’s calendar it’s not much of an incentive to head for the Civic Centre.
My colleague Nicholas Dowling has a special interest in the money side of council affairs and isn’t so easily put off. He had read the Agenda to last Thursday’s meeting in advance and decided that it would be difficult to stretch the meeting out for longer than ten minutes and he lives close by so he became Bexley council’s almost solitary observer. This is his report…
I thought I’d wander up and see what was afoot at the Finance and Corporate Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee and as usual I was not part of a big crowd; there was one other member of the public present and I think he was a guest of the Labour councillors.
Noting that there was one Agenda item to be nodded through I was not expecting a lengthy affair; and I was not wrong. Starting at 7:15 p.m. chairman Philip Read sped through proceedings in four minutes flat - and that included a nice jibe from councillor Stefano Borella enquiring why such a paltry meeting had to be held anyway. It transpired the reason was councillor Read’s failure to notice that the item on the Arrangements for Undertaking the Committee’s Business had not been put to the vote at the previous two minute meeting held on 22nd May 2013. This is precisely the sort of incompetence expected of a Bexley councillor trousering a £7,689.92 special allowance on top of his councillor’s pay!
With this faux pas dealt with we moved rapidly on to the Business Rates Retention Scrutiny sub-group meeting which started at 7:21pm. It was left to the doddering councillor Colin Tandy to nominate the rogue councillor Peter Craske as chairman of this august body – it appears that the dastardly councillor must serve more purdah before his sins are fully forgotten but his cronies want to sling him another allowance to make up for last year’s fall in councillor income.
His chairmanship was far from exemplary and the meeting was definitely one of the most amateurish affairs I have attended; more akin to a brainstorming session without too many brains being engaged. There was little or no structure to the meeting, the Agenda points were addressed at whim by all and sundry and frankly nobody had a great deal to say of pertinence to the matter in hand.
Peter Craske launching into a clearly unprepared and off the cuff introduction to this sub-group was almost immediately interrupted by his sponsor councillor Colin Tandy and Peter allowed Colin to launch into a lengthy ramble regarding his interpretation of the Finance Department’s background paper on business rates retention. Suffice to say he managed to regurgitate it quite well, although I am not sure how he believed he was enlightening his peers who had all clearly read it for themselves.
We then had John Peters, the Deputy Director of Finance and Mike Ellsmore the Director of Finance and Resources expand on things a little by pointing out that there was no new money on offer and that ratable values were not going to be set by local authorities; the gist of the deal being that for every £1 achieved above a set base business rate of monies already collected, 30 pence would accrue to the council’s coffers. On the other hand, we were reminded that there is a potential £140 million black hole owing to outstanding appeals to the business rates dating back to 2005. Fortunately it turns out that the two incinerators that Bexley council permitted are jackpot business rate ticket items as are large retail units – the proffered example being Tesco on the Civic Centre site. So now we start to see the method in their planning madness!
Bexley, we were informed, had achieved a paltry 6% business rate growth in ten years with the main reason for this being put down to poor or inadequate transport links into and out of the Borough. Still nothing succeeds like failure in local government and Will Tuckley can be rightly proud that his vastly expensive leadership over much of that time has resulted in Bexley being able to go cap in hand to central government and qualify for a £13·8 million top-up for being unable to raise its assessed need from local business rates. Funny how none of the Conservative councillors chose to dwell on the reason for this windfall. I wonder if our glorious leader Teresa O’Neill will highlight this ‘success’ in her next Pravda report to the council?
So did anybody have any ideas to raise extra business rates? No, not really. However, councillor Nigel Betts did want his hairdresser to actually pay some business rates as this astute businessman was using all sorts of reliefs to mitigate any liability. How dare he? Warming to his theme Nigel’s next thrust was to target businesses that operate from residential addresses. Never let it be said that Tories want to encourage small business and kindle the spark of entrepreneurial spirit. No helping hand from Nigel as he wants you to pay tax and, yes, much more tax.
You could see the look of horror on Mike Ellsmore’s face at this suggestion. No doubt he was thinking about how difficult it would be to define, let alone track and trace these home outfits, and concentrating a lot of effort on these low value businesses. They are bound to be small operations if they are based in a shed, garage or spare room. It cannot be cost effective. Luckily his colleague John Peters came to the rescue with a very plausible point that if you charge business rates you cannot then charge council tax and you would also lose any new homes bonus as well if that had previously applied. There was a collective sigh of relief from the other Conservatives as they realised that they could legitimately ignore this vote losing suggestion from one of their own!
Following on from the earlier point about poor transport links in Bexley, Labour councillor Seán Newman saw a great opportunity to suggest, with a beaming smile, that it would be splendid idea to promote a bridge over the Thames as this would undoubtedly enhance ratable business values and provide more business rates to the council. The red faced chairman, councillor Peter Craske turned a deeper shade of beetroot and was for some reason rather dismissive of this point.
Councillor Newman then came up with the best idea of the meeting by suggesting that council officers could get back to them with regeneration ideas and costings in order that they could better understand the effects of improved transport links on business rates and ratable values. This seemed to make Mike Ellsmore cringe as he claimed it was a fairly futile exercise to try and guess the economic effects of redevelopment. However, the idea did seem to have some cross party support. I guess we will have to just wait and see if anything comes of Sean’s brainwave. I mean who would have the audacity to try and use real evidence to make a decision here in Bexley? Next they’ll be demanding accurate forecasts and real targets? Crikey, where will it all end?
Mike Ellsmore then masterfully steered the sub-group towards looking at reliefs on the business rates and no doubt this is the kind of tinkering that will keep councillors and their officers suitably happy. I suspect that it won’t generate a great deal of extra revenue but if maintaining the status quo and their own salaries and perks is a primary motivation, it was a job well done.
Luckily the ruddy chairman, councillor Peter Craske wanted to democratise business rates - which I must confess had me rather bemused. Still, this blue sky thinking was later explained to all and sundry as a quid pro quo to local businesses in that if you could get them to pay more business rates then you could offer them more development and services. Obviously it was not explained or considered how you would regenerate down at heel areas with this cart before the proverbial donkey approach but then why let a little matter of detail get in the way of the only suggestion you can come up with?
Peter Craske having heard enough of his group for one night glanced at the clock and went into splendidly vague mode. He wasn’t sure if they would need a further three or four meetings to finalise a report; nor could he say what it would be about, but rest assured he was going to go away and work on something and get back to them all at a point, yet to be determined, in the future. The meeting was closed by 8 p.m., a staggering 39 minutes of very poor meeting. I was far from impressed but not really surprised as I my expectations are always low. The whole sorry affair was a complete waste of time and will produce absolutely nothing of merit. They really do need to do better!
There, I told you it would be boring didn’t I? Not even Nicholas can spice it up.