Bexley council is easing itself back to work and last night saw the first of their three autumn scrutiny committee meetings.
The Resources Scrutiny Committee meeting is chaired by councillor Steven Hall
who I have always found to be an affable easy going and friendly sort of chap,
but when chairing meetings he changes.
Steven adopts an officious school masterly persona and in my opinion over-emphasises his insistence on rigid adherence to the agenda and his Resources brief which may be a good thing, but to hear him say it over and over again makes him sound like some sort of aloof robot. His natural good natured self barely makes an appearance and I suspect he is acutely aware that his every move is being watched by She Who Must Be Obeyed via a laptop logged into the webcast. Rather him than me. If the webcasting makes it past the trial period you can be pretty sure it will be for Teresa O’Neill’s benefit.
Apart from councillor June Slaughter (Conservative), two Labour councillors (Stefano Borella and Brenda Langstead) and one of their party followers, I was the only onlooker present and normally I would attempt to summarise a two hour 15 minute meeting with the highlights and maybe a few interesting quotes, which gives me some difficulty. There weren’t any, so apologies for any boredom.
As has become the norm since the last election the Labour contingent had done their homework and put the Conservative administration on the spot whenever they could but Tory councillors didn’t have a great deal to say.
A couple of Conservatives made statements and were mildly rebuked by the chairman as he was expecting questions. The two Committee Vice-Chairmen (Maxine Fothergill and Nick O’Hare) and later a Sub-Committee Chairman, read their reports but apart from those only Colin Tandy and Cheryl Bacon woke up more than once.
UKIP contributed sweet F.A. too. Minds away in Clacton and Heywood presumably, but there is always someone intent on making an idiot of himself and last night was no exception.
This is dangerous territory, but if reports are merely type written and read out, Tories don’t ask probing questions, answers to opposition questions are as often as not deferred to written statements later and only one member of the public shows up, what is the point of public scrutiny meetings? All the business could be conducted by email. I’d better shut up; don’t give them ideas.
Cabinet member Gareth Bacon’s report was well focused and mercifully free of political point scoring. He had already begun to combat the council’s unfortunate budgetary situation by asking for a £2 million saving before next April. This he said was already in the bag, £451,000 from efficiency savings and £1·7 million from “front line services”. A 15% reduction from within his own portfolio but another £7 million must be found elsewhere by the new year.
After welcoming new Finance Director Alison Griffin (pictured above and below) to the fold, cabinet member Bacon said this…
Inevitably more transactions will be forced on-line (and God help the elderly) and it was said that www.bexley.gov.uk is now getting 1·8 million visitors a year. Good Lord, that is just over four times as many as Bonkers. Maybe if I could issue a few PCNs and fail to collect some bins BiB might reach those giddy heights.
Councillor Daniel Francis (Labour) was critical of the recent budget consultation. Not only was 394 respondents poor - little better than 0·1% of the electorate - but the results held no demographic data. Age, location, sex etc. Sadly his curiosity went unassuaged as no analysis had taken place.
Councillor Danny Hackett (Labour) asked where the £7 million was going to come from. Efficiency savings and bringing forward savings scheduled for later was the answer.
Councillor Cafer Munur (Conservative) advocated councillors going out themselves to drum up support for completing consultations and not leave everything to the communications team.
Councillor Abena Oppong-Asare (Labour) complained that the timetabling of meetings meant that councillors were sometimes expected to scrutinise decisions before the cabinet had approved them. Cabinet member Gareth Bacon said that the poor timetabling of meetings was due to this year’s election being held three weeks later than expected - and presumably had absolutely nothing to do with Bexley council taking a three month summer holiday.
Danny Hackett said he and Daniel Francis had been busy in the council offices until after 9 pm last Sunday and he was shocked to see eight or nine contractors working there all day and still there when they went home. They were painting walls and planting trees, which was of course being done before Boris Johnson showed up next day to massage Tory egos. Danny was concerned about the cost, the Tories weren’t, claiming that against the £42 million refurbishment cost a pot of paint was neither here nor there, or as Gareth Bacon put it, the costs were “comparatively trivial”.
It reminded me of when I was a schoolboy in Aldershot in the early 1950s. Barracks outside the town centre consisted of rusty corrugated iron huts and when the Queen came they were all whitewashed - but only up to the roof apex which she might see.
There was a long discussion about a Social Care project which is supposed to save £2,448,000 this financial year but was ‘amber rated’ in September which means it is being closely monitored in case it doesn’t hit the target. Despite council officers assuring councillors of all persuasions that they were confident the project is not wildly off track, most councillors were pessimistic and to me came across as too damned thick to grasp the point. September is only half way through the year for goodness sake!
No council meeting would be complete without a reference to Bexley’s problems with Children’s Services. It is hemorrhaging money and no one wants to work in Bexley. The vacancy rate for social workers stands at 50% making it easily the worst council in London. When asked why, councillor Gareth Bacon said that there was a widespread shortage of social workers, which when you think about it doesn’t even begin to be a good excuse. Other boroughs face the same shortage. Bexley is second to bottom for the proportion of staff who are agency workers too.
For the record Bexley is also worst of the lot for Children in Need passing exams.
The same report said that Bexley was second best for Recycling which is not what the council tells the electorate. (See current Bexley Magazine.)
Colin Tandy thought that Bexley wasn’t like other boroughs so shouldn’t be compared. Daniel Francis begged to differ suggesting Barnet, Havering etc. couldn’t be all that different.
Quite a lot of the meeting was taken up reporting on recent training trips for councillors and arranging more, right down to taking the names of those who might like to go next. All things which would be better done via email.
Daniel Francis was rightfully upset to find that a subject that he was prevented from raising at the last meeting was supposed to be on yesterday’s agenda but it wasn’t. He had a transcript from the last webcast to prove his case. Not surprisingly it couldn’t be discussed last night and the chairman said that the February agenda was already too full so it would have to wait until April 2015. Councillor Francis was understandably not happy with his three month wait being extended to nine. Director Paul Moore managed to find a compromise, grudgingly accepted.
Councillor Francis is rarely happy. When he heard that Bexley council had written to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to submit their views on changes to arrangements for Business Rates six months ago without reply he had another reason not to smile.
Oh, the idiot. Who filled the slot this time? David Leaf (Conservative, Longlands). He thought it might be fun to make mischief for Abena Oppong-Asare who was substituting for Labour leader Alan Deadman who was unable to attend.
Leaf said she was offending against Standing Order 62 because Abena was not the approved substitute especially as her senior colleague Brenda Langstead was present as an observer. It was he said “a flagrant breach of Standing Orders”.
Following some rustling of papers and a short conversation between Committee Officer Julie Southcott and Chairman Hall, councillor Leaf was proved to be the one who had fouled up. The first call Labour substitute for the Resources Scrutiny Committee is Abena Oppong-Asare.
Whether she is or not it was a fine example of petty mindedness to bring up just as the meeting was coming to a close.