Six Bexley councillors got back to work last night when the Audit Committee
reconvened in Public Gallery East - apologies to Licensing and Planning
Committee members who don’t get a three month break.
Converting an old building society office to a town hall was never likely to provide ideal accommodation and the two small committee rooms are even worse than the council chamber for any member of the public who might wish to attend and actually see and hear. The meeting rooms are long and narrow and the top table is far away and committee members naturally address it rather than the public. It all makes for audibility being something of a challenge.
Committee Officer Sandra Baxter always does the best she can in the circumstances and this time had wheeled out the Hearing Loop kit which I do not believe was used by anyone, only John Watson and myself having braved the traffic gridlock that extended from Erith to Ruxley Corner yesterday evening.
The last Audit Committee meeting was dominated by councillor Steven Hall and his stream of questions, but this time he was eclipsed by Labour councillor Daniel Francis who had prepared a whole series of queries. Without him the meeting might have been over in 20 minutes rather than 70 (†).
Among the few interesting items that cropped up was that the council had underspent last year by £883,000 which has been transferred to the reserves. Councillor Francis asked what the reserves were as a percentage of overall expenditure. Finance Director Mike Ellsmore said that total expenditure excluding schools was about £160 million and total reserves were about £46 million so "around 30%”. “What would be a good level for reserves?” councillor Francis asked but Mr. Ellsmore said the issue was far too complicated for such a question but given “the volatility of council financing” he would prefer the figure to be higher than it is.
One of councillor Francis’ themes was how the academy status of many Bexley schools impacted on the council’s financial liabilities and he several times alluded to a Bexley school where there had been financial irregularities and who was going to pick up the bill. It would appear that one way or another it will be the council tax payer.
Another theme was Children’s Services which has soaked up an enormous amount of money with little to show for it apart from a Government Improvement Notice. Mr. Ellsmore said the demographics are getting steadily worse and the costs will rise. He lamented the fact that the work force was still not stable - they keep leaving! -and that impeded the spread of Bexley’s ethics. No comment please!
Councillor Francis expressed some concern about the council’s decision to insure itself only minimally and save a lot of money in the process. This has always seemed to me to be a sensible move. Why bloat the insurance company profits when you own enough property (or whatever) to spread the risk? One effectively becomes one’s own insurance company. Deputy Finance Director John Peters explained the theory and that the insurances that were in existence limited total liability.
Councillor Francis (second from left in photo above) arguably drifted off topic when he made reference to the ludicrous scrutiny situation recently introduced by leader Teresa O’Neill as part of her ambition to stifle debate. He said that we now have a 46 member People Scrutiny Committee of which Children’s Services is now relegated to a minor component. It was “not effective” and there were “grave ongoing concerns”, as well there might be, of everything related to the programme of ‘democratic deficit’ pursued by the leader. Perhaps chairman Joe Pollard agreed because he did nothing to stop councillor Francis from wandering towards the territory occupied by other committees.
Bexley’s auditors (Grant Thornton) were present and represented by Sue Exton and Geoffrey Banister. Ms. Exton said that the council does not maximise council tax collection which is not as good as other boroughs which continued to improve whilst Bexley usually has not. 2013/14 did show some improvement.
Mr. Ellsmore regretted the fact that despite trying a wide variety of incentives, Direct Debits remained stubbornly at the 66% mark, far below Bromley for example. Probably this is due to Bexley’s generally low value housing where people move in and disappear six months later. I see it frequently in my own road where there are flats mixed with detached houses and it would appear to be a very plausible explanation.
It still isn’t clear how Bexley is going to fill its £40 million black hole and the auditor has noticed.
In 2014, before the results of the public budget consultation has been analysed and ignored, this is probably to be expected and Ms. Exton agreed that many or even most councils were in the same boat.
This meeting was the last one to be graced by Finance Director Mike Ellsmore before his retirement at the end of the month. I am sorry to see him go, I don’t think his name has ever been associated with any negative comment on Bonkers (high salary apart!) and unlike any of his colleagues will exchange a friendly word or two when the opportunity arises. I am sure all the regular attendees at council meetings will be wishing him well with his retirement plans.
His successor starting work in Bexley in a week’s time will be Alison Griffin who comes from Camden but is no stranger to Bexley.
† The public were flung out after 70 minutes while some of the council’s dirty secrets were discussed in private.