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Bonkers Blog February 2014

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19 February (Part 1) - Every little helps

CalendarThere were council meetings scheduled last night and I thought I would take a look at the Agenda before making the trip to the Civic Centre. I was confused. The website said there was to be an Adults’ Services Committee meeting but when I clicked on the link it provided no Agenda and since there was an Adults’ Services meeting as recently as last Thursday it looked like being a mistake. It is illegal to hold a public council meeting without making the Agenda available a week in advance.

Fortunately it was the Audit Committee meeting I had my eye on, there has not been one for five months and chairman Steven Hall can be relied on not to treat the public with contempt. Since permission to record was granted there has been little of that but maybe things will change if Cheryl Bacon is ever let loose again.

On arrival it became clear that advertising an Adults’ Services meeting was indeed a mistake. Chairman of Audit, Steven Hall, asked me if I had nothing better to do other than listen to him which was a good question. This banter is, I should explain, something I had encouraged and in no way rude or offensive. Before the meeting began I was joined by regular attendee John Watson and half way through the meeting councillor Philip Read shuffled into one of the public seats.

DoorCouncillor Hall is too sensible to bother with issuing a futile warning to me not to take photos of John Watson if he objected and launched straight into a warm welcome to everyone present. This included a contingent from Grant Thornton, the council’s auditors. The auditors appeared to be on very good terms with the councillors and officials. All first names, jokes and good natured exchanges.

I didn’t expect to learn much from the meeting but there was one surprise. Because Bexley council had accounted for the sale of the Civic Centre incorrectly the auditors had to report that it was sold to Tesco for £25 million. Grant Thornton said Bexley had understated it by £1,876,000 due to some obscure error that only an accountant would understand. A good job they did because otherwise the sale price may never have come to light.

Given that Bexley had put down £23 million for the sale, if their claim that the Woolwich building has cost nothing is true, they must have banked on selling the other four sites for £19 million. Recently we learned of a site that didn’t sell at all and was leased. I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole of the Conservative’s ‘free new HQ’ claim came tumbling down eventually.

It is probably worth noting after being rather critical of his performance two weeks ago, that it was councillor Colin Tandy who asked all the best questions. One was about the parking accounts which council officer David Hogan (I hope I have that right, the speaker had obscured his name plate) described as a “significant control failure”. “Pay & Display income reconciliations had been reconciled by Bexley Finance for the first six months of the financial year but had not since been conducted on a monthly basis as required and that due to a lack of data a reconciliation of the Penalty Charge Notice Income had not been conducted for the 2013/14 year at the time of audit.” Maybe it’s more difficult to keep a check on staff who have been hidden away in Bromley to save a few bob.

DDOther interesting snippets were that council tax collection by Direct Debit stands at only 66% and refuses to go any higher. This is lower than other London boroughs. Collection rates are lower than other London boroughs and although the rate is improving it is not improving as fast as the other boroughs. Council officer John Peters said that all the figures being discussed were “in year” statistics and follow ups pushed collections up to 98%.

One of the intriguing things about the auditor’s contribution to the meeting was their booklet on best practice in Local Government. Bexley didn’t get a mention but Barnet did. I am sure the bloggers of Barnet will be gratified to know that their much loved Conservative council is seen as one of the best by Grant Thornton.

During Agenda Item 8 John Watson and I were asked to leave because the committee was about to discuss some subject about which the public must be kept in the dark. We were not even allowed to know the subject matter to be discussed.

As usual I audio recorded the meeting but time constraints do not allow it to be checked  through so this report has been produced the old way, from scribbled notes. I took only one photograph which may be seen above. I thought it might come in useful one day as part of my Cheryl Bacon evidence pack.


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