Compared to previous years we have lost a council meeting. The one usually held at this time of the year has disappeared as part of leader Teresa O’Neill’s mission to clamp down on opportunities to check up on her. Instead we are left only with the meeting at which she can boast with an army of 50 sycophants to support her. Mayor Alan Downing who chaired the meeting didn’t bother to dress up for the occasion, the doorman looked smarter. Actually he is smarter and certainly far more civilized.
Downing started with his usual diatribe about the need to observe “protocols” which is puzzling because only last month the Director of Corporate Services said these protocols were not protocols - which can be questioned - but are rule book issues - which can’t. But the mayor says they are protocols so I suppose the Director must have fibbed.
Then Downing droned on about respecting his office. All councillors must stand up only one at a time and face him when speaking. This puts their nether regions in close proximity with the desk microphones which in many cases is very appropriate. He also insisted that “discourtesy would not be tolerated” which is fair enough if the rule is applied universally. Downing was equipped with an egg timer and no councillor could speak for more than five minutes.
During the Declaration of Interests which followed, various councillors admitted the extent to which their hands are deep in the public trough but no one bothered to stand up and Downing became excessively agitated by their failure to bow, scrape and lick his boots. Maybe I too should declare an interest.
My natural inclination has always been towards the Conservatives, though David Cameron has put paid to any prospect of me voting that way again. Nevertheless an old dog has trouble with new tricks and I probably have a tendency to think like an old Tory.
The problem I have with new Tories is that they live in a bubble immune from the realities of life. They don’t see the widespread poverty and overcrowding that is prevalent in the country and of which we have more than our fair share in the north of the borough. Not even the Labour members dare live there.
If the Conservatives lived or even shopped in Thamesmead they might be suitably shocked and I don’t only mean the heavily pregnant young woman I saw leaning on the wall outside Iceland, dangling a fag over the head of her toddler and accompanied by two young fellows and all three of them clasping a can of lager (†). Many more are genuinely struggling while councillors live in posh houses.
You may nevertheless detect some pro-Conservative bias in this report.
Leader Teresa O’Neill said she was “proud to propose our budget”. For the fourth, she can’t count, year running council tax was to be frozen despite the “economic mess the Labour government left behind”. She had “looked more strategically at expenditure instead of sticking plaster solutions”. In the future she must contend “with inflation on contracts and no interest on investments” but she had proved that “strategic financial planning works”.
Bexley gets the fourth lowest central government per capita financial settlement in London (£202.40 : average £423.78) and because of the type of housing has the second lowest tax take in Outer London, just above Waltham Forest. If O’Neill wasn’t so keen to have me arrested I might say "well done”. She spoke for six minutes which was enough to throw two jibes in the direction of councillor Malik.
Deputy leader Colin Campbell seconded the motion, saying that he was on track to save £36 million by the end of next year, not by the end of this month as currently reported by the Bexley Times. The “next four years will be challenging” however. That could be code for tax may have to go up.
Opposition councillor Seán Newman shared that concern. “The leader of Bromley Council has said that Eric Pickles’ hand outs for freezing tax were a short term financial gimmick” and Bexley was “heading for the financial cliff”. “Bexley had levied £7.4 million of stealth taxes through the back door and it was equivalent to a 9% council tax increase each year.”
The council claims to be a ‘Listening Council’ but rejects petitions and avoids opening up meetings to public scrutiny to the extent demanded by government - and “its finances are not credible”.
Councillor Alan Deadman is always concerned about the fate of Bexley council’s rank and file staff and last night was no exception. They have “suffered a four year pay freeze and a 17% effective cut in wages”. A 1% council tax increase would have gone some way to plugging the looming financial black hole.
Councillor Brenda Langstead was not impressed by the GLA precept being reduced by £3·72 a year and contrasted that with the 5% tax imposition on those on benefits. She was greeted by jeers from the Conservative benches. (Courtesy breach No. 1 Mr. Mayor.)
Cabinet member John Fuller took the mickey out of the opposition with a Monty Python quotation which I felt was a little beneath him and finished up by saying Bromley residents could afford a 1% increase and Bexley residents couldn’t. Not his finest hour.
Councillor Munir Malik said Bexley residents might be relieved at no increase because it would help them pay for Boris Johnson’s hiking of public transport costs - not to mention the taxes on fuel which were “sky rocketing”. He made a reference to the effect of bad bankers on the economy and the Tories laughed at him. (Courtesy breach No. 2.)
Parking charges had been temporarily frozen only after years of increases and councillor Craske’s policies had not been popular. The “draconian enforcement regime was another stealth tax by the back door”. We need a rethink on how we can help small business. It was not only the big names that were closing their doors, so were the small shops some of whom blamed parking restrictions. The £35 million cut from the council’s budget had lost £100 million to the wider Bexley economy, and we need more river crossings. Councillor Malik always provides good value from his permitted five minutes.
Cabinet member Gareth Bacon responded, facing the mayor with his mouth well beyond microphone reach. Fortunately he was closest to the public gallery so not totally inaudible. “Public transport fares had risen to fund the tube upgrades” which will please the tubeless little old ladies of Thamesmead who councillor Malik had in mind. “Unfortunately” - note Bacon’s word - Bexley was not able to impose massive parking charges to fund the council as had been possible in Westminster and a bridge in Thamesmead couldn’t be justified because no one wants to go there. Apparently crossings cannot be justified by traffic wishing to pass through so presumably the ferry is in jeopardy too.
The myriad stealth taxes (Bacon again) introduced in recent years by Bexley council were not stealth taxes they were “service charges”. The problems of the poor in Thamesmead were just “sob stories”. So Nasty Tories are still alive and well and not a figment of Theresa May’s imagination. He was “fully proud” of what the council had done.
Labour councillor Margaret O’Neill was “disappointed” by Bacon’s attitude. She said traders in Erith were forecasting there would be no independent shops left in five year’s time. Even in Bexleyheath sales were up by only 0.8% last year whereas nationally the figure was 1.9%. Parking was a factor. The BID (Business Improvement District) in Bexleyheath was “floundering” but in Dartford it was a success. (Maybe it is because the front page of Bexley BID’s website is still wishing shoppers a Happy Christmas.)
Councillor Sandra Bauer was concerned about the poverty in Thamesmead.
Councillor Chris Taylor said Labour was good at spending other people’s money and in Bexley they played at “student politics”. (Courtesy breach No. 3?) He said the mark of a compassionate and civilised society is how we look after the poor. Then he proudly announced that he had been able to cut the expenditure on the poor to £44.90 (per what I didn’t hear) compared to the £52.30 London average.
For a pensioner on a fixed income, Taylor said, a council tax freeze was essential. Labour policies had degenerated from the ”back of a fag packet” variety to “soggy dog end”. (Courtesy breach No. 4.) Taylor isn’t very good at metaphors is he? Maybe he needs a pitchfork up his bum.
Councillor Stefano Borella said Bexley was heading for a £40 million black hole and reminded councillor Chris Taylor that when MCCH (Bexley’s care provider) cut staff wages by up to 50% Taylor said it “wasn’t my problem” and proceded to extend their contract. What was it Taylor said about compassion?
Cabinet member Linda Bailey answered councillor O’Neill’s questions about the BID - correctly as it happens - but referred to her throughout as Mrs. O’Neill. What do you think the clown Downing would have said if the boot was on the other foot? (Courtesy breach No. 5.)
Labour leader Chris Ball and school head master in his spare time raised the point that has been made here several times. If the 40% tax increase imposed by his party was so very wrong, why have the Conservatives never given it back? It fixed a funding gap and allowed schools to be fully funded for the first time, said councillor Ball. If the council intends to make similar cuts in the next four years as they have in the recent past “every non-core service will come under attack”.
Cabinet member Don Massey said that councillor Ball was “all mouth and no trousers”. (Courtesy breach No. 6.)
Cabinet member Katie Perrior said that “Labour’s performance [at this meeting] was woefully poor”.
Leader Teresa O’Neill rose to her feet again to reinforce Perrior’s message. “I am astounded that Labour has no alternative policy and that is absolutely amazing”. I thought they had said their policy was to increase the tax by 1% and save it as a hedge against the £40 million black hole but who am I to spoil a good story?
“Yes there is a £40 million black hole” O’Neill said but unlike Labour who “spend money how they like, we put residents first”.
The vote was taken and split exactly along party lines lines as it always does. Kevin Fox was in difficulty trying to add up the result; you would think that 52:11 was engraved on his brain by now but apparently not. Actually one Conservative was absent. 52-1= umm! Not sure, but with his leader unable to count the number of tax frozen years correctly his job must still be safe.
The main business being over by 21:15 I left as I had promised the members of the Bexley Council Monitoring Group I’d tell them how I got on at the meeting Chief Superintendent Victor Olisa called in connection with his failure to charge Bexley council’s obscene blogger and my intention to send a file to Scotland Yard. You didn’t know I’d been to see the cops? Shame on you, it was all recorded on the Timeline as it happened.
† I didn’t make that up, it is exactly what I observed just a few months ago.