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Bonkers Blog October 2014

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15 October (Part 2) - Bexley’s cabinet approves their own budget proposals

Teresa O'NeillI didn’t learn very much at last night’s cabinet meeting, but that will be because I had read most of the agenda beforehand. Some of Bexley’s budget proposals have already been mentioned here but there are a lot more to come. They estimate £51 million must be saved or raised by 2018 and the current proposals fall a lot short of that. For example, for next year £9·8 million of savings have been identified but that is still £7·4 million short of what is required. Later years are worse.

I have seen cabinet meetings where the public gallery is occupied by one member of the public and one, sometimes two councillor observers. However last night, whilst the public was as apathetic as ever there was a near 100% turnout of councillors, both Labour and Conservative eager to hear, and occasionally question, the cabinet members who stated their cases. Why the Uninterested; Keep Indoors Party decided otherwise I have no idea but it looked bad to me. Amateurs.

The leader, Teresa O’Neill, reminded everyone that the budget strategy was just the beginning of the process and a public consultation would follow. “People do engage well with our consultations” she said, fooling no one. Possibly more honestly she went on to say that people were pleased with the council tax freezes.

The new Director of Finance spoke mainly in platitudes that you or I could have come out with but she did confirm that the public consultation would start almost immediately and continue for twelve weeks until January.

She and various cabinet members emphasised that the proposals were work in progress. The first was Gareth Bacon who spoke of the “unprecedented and unique pressures” on Bexley and he referred again to the savings he had made for the current year.

Cabinet member Eileen Pallen said that Bexley had the third fastest ageing population in London and went on to refer to the cost implications. Bromley and Havering are the even less fortunate boroughs.
Councillor Don Massey has the misfortune of owning the brief with the biggest public face and therefore most likely to be on the receiving end of public discontent.

He said he was looking at cutting back on maintenance of parks and then enlarged on his plan to charge for collecting garden waste. It became evident that this was connected with the plan to replace the fleet of refuse lorries but in exactly what way he didn’t say. He said that 25% of London councils charge for collecting garden waste and Bexley is usually in the bottom quartile of worst performing London boroughs so why not on this as well? Sorry, that last bit is me thinking aloud, not Massey. Whether the division of compostable waste into food and garden will mean yet another bin he failed to say.

Justifying his decision, Massey said that a lot of people didn’t have gardens and many of those who do compost their own, implying that a free service is not fair on those people. Maybe Massey is thinking of reintroducing the Poll Tax. I don’t have children at school, no longer use the library and my boundary with the road is only twelve feet long so I don’t get my fair share of street cleaning. Should I complain?

He rather ridiculed Bromley council for charging £60 a year for their compost service, he was looking at more like £35. On a personal note I compost as much as I can and have never put food in the brown bin except once some sprouting potatoes. I had decided that if the charge was no more than £30 I would go along with it, otherwise compost is likely to go in a black sack in my green bin which I never get anywhere near filling.

Cabinet member Linda Bailey said she would be contributing to the budget shortfall by bringing more money in and asked council officers to try to get more people involved in the consultation process. She had no ideas of her own and officers have previously stated that they struggle with consultations due to the funds made available to them.

It was cabinet member Alex Sawyer who mentioned the Belvedere Splash Park. He said the problems it was facing were “absolutely horrifying” and there were “Health & Safety risks”. He plans a replacement facility - without water!

Belvedere councillor Daniel Francis responded. He said the closure of the Splash Park was “driving widespread anger, not just the Belvedere community”. He has had “parents from Bexley village, parents from Sidcup contact him”. I wondered how. I do not believe the topic has yet reached the newspapers and few will search council agendas. Maybe they are all Bonkers’ readers.

Councillor Francis said the splash park is still advertised by the maker as “a state of the art facility” and he will be asking questions. “The Earl of Eardley gifted that land and for more than 100 years it has been a water heritage facility”. It has been a boating pond, a paddling pool and a splash park and Conservatives were planning on ending it all. The Labour party will oppose the decision “bitterly, bitterly, and the people of this borough will join us in this fight”.

Teresa O’Neill said that if there were other ideas she would like to hear them.

Councillor Peter Craske was less conciliatory and his address gradually descended towards his stock in trade. Political abuse. He said that the opposition had no ideas other than expensive ones like opposing the recent changes to the senior management structure. He said the Labour group was “lazy”.

The rather pathetic councillor David Leaf took a similar line to Craske and dragged up ancient history when he said installation of the Splash Park in Labour’s time caused the park to be unusable for six months. Well what else did he expect? Idiot! Two meetings in a row. For good measure he said that “Labour’s legacy was a disaster”.

A discussion on the Thames River Crossing went along the usual lines. Bexley council is now neutral on the subject of a Gallions Reach bridge so long as a bridge (or a tunnel) is built at Belvedere first and “effective mitigation” is put in place. Councillor Don Massey believed that Havering council is not altogether happy with the idea of a Belvedere to Rainham bridge, capacity on the A13 being an issue.

Parking was up for discussion next and there was nothing much new there either. Charges up, increased fines in Sidcup and Welling, no free parking period and the only thing I’ve failed to mention here already is that there is to be ‘a universal season ticket’. With single site season tickets already costing £964 a year it won’t be cheap.

The last item of wide interest was the Joint Strategic Needs Assessment (JSNA) which is the ridiculous name for a look at the borough’s health needs. Doctor Nada Lemic spoke for ten minutes and I am afraid I switched off. She spoke in a monotonous and near inaudible drone and I’m not really sure what she was saying. The recording was little help.

I suspect I was not alone because quite a lot of councillors used those ten minutes to visit the water dispenser and others left the room heading in the direction of ‘the facilities’. I sat reading the agenda but Dr. Lemic must have referred to the high obesity levels in Bexley because when she had finished councillor Sawyer applauded “the focus” on addictions, diabetes and obesity and said “I am pretty certain that we all know at least one person falling into one of those categories“. Yes, I am sure we do.

While reading the agenda I was not all that surprised to read that lung cancer is a particular problem in Bexley, significantly higher than the London average. You only have to walk through Broadway on a Saturday to see the reason and this morning the smell as I trailed a commuter to Abbey Wood station was most unpleasant, and he must have been at least 75 yards ahead of me. Maybe Boris’s latest idea is not such a bad one.

What surprised me rather more was that the level of delayed detection HIV in Thamesmead is not only the worst in London but one of the highest in the country. The JSNA report said they need to better understand why A&E admission for under four year old children, winter deaths, alcohol abuse, lung cancer, high death rates in hospital are all worse in Bexley than elsewhere.

I suspect they already have a good idea why Thamesmead’s HIV levels are so bad and it is to be hoped that Rotherham style political correctness is not hampering their response.

Another thing I discovered whilst browsing the agenda was that for all the effort that Bexley council appears to have invested in finding additional foster parents, the net increase this year has been a disappointing two.


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