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Bonkers Blog March 2014

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6 March (Part 4) - The Bexley budget debate 2014

MayorIf mayor Sharon Massey had deliberately set about pleasing council critics she could hardly have done a better job. She allowed photography at her meetings before the new protocol was formally adopted and last night she said nothing about it; just let those with cameras go about their business unhindered. She will be a hard act to follow.

There was something between 20 and 30 people in the public gallery, al lot of them candidates at the next election. After discovering who I was a bunch of Tories got up and moved away.

I left after the budget vote was taken having been asked by Mick Barnbrook to go elsewhere to discuss with him what should be done with the Cheryl Bacon file but although we reached a decision, not being present throughout the council meeting was probably a mistake. I’m told I missed a number of little gems like councillor Linda Bailey suggesting that Sidcup High Street is benefitting from the traffic chaos there because it is keeping people there longer. Yeah, that makes sense.

The meeting has already been reported in brief so this second one will probably turn out to be a stodgy catalogue of quotable quotes. Here we go…

LeaderTeresa O’Neill moved the recommendation to adopt the budget proposals. The budget she said, rather obviously, “dictates what services the council delivers”. She was “disappointed that the Labour party did not accept the motion” but she had “put away something for a rainy day and put something in our back pocket for when the need arose and improved the services for our residents”.

“We could have taken the easy way out and taken advice from the opposition spokesperson who suggested we should put up council tax by 40% or go bankrupt”. That would appear to be a lie based on something Munir Malik said long ago but the 40% will be news to everyone even if Munir did refer to bankruptcy.

“We promised taxpayers value for money and we have taken action to ensure we remain a low council tax authority” - but not as low as other London boroughs.

“We listened to what our residents say and considered their responses. The consultation responses were very clear and most agreed with our proposal”. The leader then went on about the climb down on moving the archives to Bromley which are now to stay at no extra cost. Far from being a success, that proposal must surely have been an enormous mistake if Penny Duggan (Bexley Historical Society) can waltz in and come up with a much better plan.

“We have even improved services” she said without providing specific examples but later the council tax support scheme was branded “excellent”. Schools “improved” and “Queen Mary’s Hospital we can be really proud of”. Waitrose is in Sidcup and Tesco in Erith and all there because of our Conservative council apparently.

The new council HQ is “going to deliver for residents“ and “save vast amounts of money on a yearly basis”. The leader concluded by comparing herself with Lady Thatcher although it has to be said, not entirely seriously. Overall the leader gave a good account of herself with not too many excursions into her council’s customary dishonesty.

Deputy leaderThe deputy leader seconded the motion saying these were “difficult times” but “we are up to the job”. The council has “revolutionised and redesigned children’s services” following the appalling OFSTED report “and we have committed millions to that service”.

Campbell said that some of his investments had gone unnoticed and reeled off a list. The new council telephone system, the web improvements, better IT systems, “they go under the radar but demonstrate our investment in Bexley”.

He taunted the opposition that in 2010 they said the council could not deliver £35 million savings and he assured residents he could deliver the budget “right up to 2018”.

The mayor then asked councillors if they wished to speak. Of course they did.

Labour councillor Brenda Langstead was as always concerned about her own electors and singled out community safety for comment. She correctly reminded the meeting that the more honest among the Conservatives had admitted that front line services would be affected by the new budget. She said that the tax freeze of the past four years had resulted in 50% of services being lost. How that is calculated she did not say but there is no doubt that in principle councillor Langstead is correct.

Councillor Margaret O’Neill (Labour) was unhappy about the lack of affordable rented accommodation and the 8,000 people awaiting allocation. She said that there is nothing in the budget to combat that situation and there was plenty of land available for building especially in the north of the borough.

BorellaCouncillor Stefano Borella, Crayford and Erith’s chosen man for Labour in 2015 referred to the Conservatives’ self congratulatory tone on the lack of council tax rises but said not everyone had benefitted. The poor who previously did not have to pay were now asked to pay a proportion of it. The policy was announced on “the same day that tax was cut for millionaires”. He referred to “the hated bedroom tax” without being hauled over the coals for the use of its colloquial name. “The impact is a massive increase in the use of food banks.  Local MPs have been happy to promote food banks as a new social service. The party opposite should be ashamed.”

Stefano was particularly critical of earlier decisions to run down children’s services to the point they were inadequate and attracted OFSTED’s attention and “now we were having to build them up again yet the cabinet member is still in her role”.

Councillor Alan Deadman invented a new council slogan incorporating the words ‘Statutory Minimums’ and was also critical of children’s services and the increased charges for things like football pitches. Grass was to be cut less often too. Parks being left open all night might adversely affect some residents. He said the costs would be transferred to the police but in the end the council tax payer still pays. Alan put in his regular plea for a small increase in pay for council staff who have had almost nothing extra over the past three years.

Deadman MalikNext we were treated to some welcome fireworks from the Thamesmead Tiger, Munir Malik, who set about savaging Bexley’s record with gusto. “It is an absolutely shameful lie that there has been any suggestion made of a 40% increase in council tax by this side of the chamber. It is an absolute lie that [lost in audience applause] but when we came into this borough there was an awful lot of work to be done and the group took control by a majority of one, not forty something. We really angst’d over how that responsibility would be carried out”.

“In 2003” he said with a grin on his face, “we increased the council tax by a slightly larger margin than [lost in applause again] but that was not the largest increase that this council ever saw. The largest increase was under the leadership of Dan Newton, a Tory member, a Tory leader. You have never apologised for that”.

Rubbish“If you thought that the Labour increase was so big why have you not returned it to the people of Bexley? You say we charged them too much but if you are now saying the freeze on taxes is because of the increase we put in between 2002 and 2006 you should say so and give us some credit. We put one million pounds into the pension fund deficit” Munir was told he was talking rubbish so he turned his attention to that subject. He said that current policy would cause rubbish to accumulate in people’s gardens and the streets”.

“You have decimated local government… we did more in our period in government than you have in these last eight years. You have got rid of the assets at rock bottom prices. Tesco’s [the Civic Centre site] is not even protected; if they were to build a block of flats or a hotel Bexley residents would get nothing out of it. You did not even include an overage clause.”

Davey Councillor John Davey stood to say he had never heard so much rubbish in his life and proceeded to outdo councillor Malik by a very considerable margin. For unfocussed rambling, John Davey takes a lot of beating. “It has always been my general principle that if I do the complete opposite of what councillor Malik has to say I cannot go far wrong. I now know why because I have since learned that he is a director of the Co-op Group with losses of two billion pounds [almost inaudible]. What does that tell you about his financial credibility?”

“We have an excellent record here, we have frozen council tax, we have put about £200 million pounds of investment into Bexley, and are getting that, brilliant investment, and that’s with freezing council tax, what more could you want? They put it up 40%, they’d probably put it up more, there is absolutely no doubt about that, it’s in their genes. They can’t stop themselves, there are three things they will do, they will put up council tax, they will pay themselves more, you can be absolutely certain of it because that is what they do”. Apparently Davey cannot even count.

“In my ward. Lesnes Abbey, we’ve got promised over three million pounds to improve Lesnes Abbey park and woods, fantastic, and improvements going on in Thamesmead and Crossrail. You can go over the whole borough, massive investments coming in and yet magically we’ve managed to freeze council tax and they seem frightened to put forward an alternative. Why is that? It’s because they know we will pick it apart; absolutely no facts behind anything they say it’s just smoke and mirrors so they just refuse to put anything forward. It’s a horrible thought, but if they were ever to win the council, they, I think, the future of our borough would be very dark indeed.

For the record, councillor Malik joined the Co-operative Group after it ran into difficulties and when the Conservatives were in opposition they didn’t produce alternative budgets either. How can a few councillors ever hope to mount the consultation processes and hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of accountancy expertise that the ruling party can muster?

NewmanAfter that it was a relief to listen to someone with something useful to say; Séan Newman. Labour for Belvedere. He returned to stealth taxes, seven million pounds of it every year, equivalent, he said, to an eleven percent increase in council tax. “It is a very disingenuous set of leaflets which are going through the doors”. He said that it is not a choice to use many of these services, cemeteries being perhaps the most obvious example given.

Councillor Gareth Bacon snubbed many of the audience by failing to switch on his microphone and had his back to them so I will note in passing only that he said the cutting of grass will be reduced only from twelve to eleven times a year and that not shutting parks will save £100,000 per annum. Isn’t that a wonderful example of how councils must be paying far too much for services? How long will it take for playground equipment to get nicked?

Councillor Chris Taylor repeated his “back of a fag packet” jibe, from 2011, about Labour’s budgeting ability and that proved to be the pinnacle of his short speech.

Councillor and cabinet member Katie Perrior came out with her usual spiel about how much she has improved children’s services and has been able to recruit people with MBEs. Unfortunately she spoke at such a furious pace and far from clearly that even with the help of the recording I have little idea of what she was saying. I heard more criticism of the opposition party and that she was proud of what she had achieved.

Massey Cabinet member Don Massey also launched into an attack on Labour who were “bombastic and scare mongering”. Mumbling along I heard him say something about them “just not getting it”. He bragged about the success of Bexley’s privatised library and the Howbury Centre “coming on stream shortly’. He admitted that service prices had increased and some were now at a premium level. He was “very concerned about the ground conditions in Danson Park. We must have better ground conditions for the festival to go ahead”.

Labour leader Chris Ball made what was in effect a farewell council speech before his bowing out in May. He expressed some doubt that the new budget could last until 2018 but hoped for the best. Cabinet member John Fuller had a few digs at the opposition but we have heard them all before. He didn’t sink to Davey’s levels - who could? - and standards have been raised in schools, but I was a bit disappointed nevertheless.

Finally leader Teresa O’Neill poo poo’d the idea of cutting the number of councillors and took a final swipe at councillor Malik. What will they do without him?

The vote divided entirely along partly lines as it always does. The Labour party will suffer the inevitable questions over whether or not they wanted to raise council tax but there has never been any direct suggestion they would do so although that might be the inevitable consequence of their ideas. There is a council tax cap of 1·99% and there has never been the slightest hint that they would try to crash through that. I don’t think they had anything more in mind than to take a leaf out of Conservative Bromley council’s book.

Apologies for not staying at the meeting past the vote but having spent five hours on this report, right now I am rather glad I didn’t.


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