The Resources Scrutiny Committee meeting (Thursday 22 October) may have been a little more
interesting than Places and
People, at least I didn’t keep looking at
my watch. Apart from the first hour I was once again the only member of the
public present. As you can see, they do their best to exclude visitors.
The chairman Steven Hall indicated that the seating arrangement was his idea and next time he might shuffle the council officers (back to the camera) along, the effect of which would be to block the gap through which the photograph below was taken.
Something must have been funny.
Councillor Daniel Francis (Labour, Belvedere) noticed the, unintentional perhaps, further exclusion of the public
brought about by the new seating arrangements but as he represents the wrong party nobody in charge was particularly interested.
The meeting began by discussing relative trivia such as the merits of delivering Agendas on paper or electronically and whether or not the council could afford to print graphs in colour and it was fully 15 minutes before the first proper question was asked. It came from councillor John Husband, Labour Lesnes Abbey.
John wanted to know whether the council’s investments of £15 million in three ‘Diversified Growth Products’ were showing a loss and if so how much. The answer from Deputy Director of Finance John Peters was that £5 million had been put into Luton Investments and another £5 million into Standard Life which were worth £4·9m and £4·86m on 19th October. The blame fell on the Chinese stock market. The remaining £5 million has not yet been invested but is likely to be put into Black Rock within the next few weeks.
Councillor Francis’ next question took the Committee to Page 22 of the Agenda where the External Auditor’s fee was listed as being down by £50,000 to £265,000. John Peters confirmed this was both true and welcome. My attention was drawn further down the same page to where Parking Income appeared to be marked down by £4,705,000. I would hope that there is more to that than meets the eye but it does say -4,705k.
Labour leader Alan Deadman asked about the staffing reduction (three posts) in the Finance Department and the claimed zero impact on Service Delivery and in the same breath moved on to the cut to the Council Tax Relief Fund and the impending cut by Government to Tax Credits.
The ‘excuse’ for the staff cut was that it was agreed in Cabinet but council officer Mark Underwood’s (Head of Exchequer Services) reminder that the likely impact of reduced Tax Credits “would be in the region of £1,300 a year for families” highlighted once again the problems associated with the sudden change. It is a great deal of money to lose for people on small incomes which will be only partially compensated by things like increased Council Tax Support.
With the clarity of thought for which Bexley’s top staff are renowned Mr. Underwood was able to predict that “it will make the financial situation for that group of families harder”. Oh well done sir.
He went on to say, “In overall terms there may be some issues around people being financially stretched but that may not be one particular area that we need to focus too much on”. It sounded less than sympathetic.
In answer to a question by councillor Louie French (Conservative, Falconwood & Welling), John Peters revealed that Bexley council is currently spending nearly £120 million on bought in services, rather more than most councils but in-house staffing costs are correspondingly less.
Finance Director Alison Griffin ran quickly through the financial situation with the same figures heard several times recently. £14 million “funding gap“, a.k.a. Black hole next year and £34 million In 2018/19.
Mark Underwood spoke of the possibility of Capita being persuaded to move out of Erith Town Hall but emphasised that this would be a long way off and at the moment it wasn’t even certain that it would be beneficial to the council.
Councillor Husband brought up the subject of the Serco (refuse disposal) contract and there was up to £200,000 to be saved by bringing it back in house but cabinet member Don Massey ducked the question.
It was pleasing to note that councillor June Slaughter (Conservative, Sidcup) thought the consultation which ran through the summer and produced only 333 responses was “meaningless” which puts her at odds with the cabinet member Linda Bailey who said the result was “neither here nor there”.
“Did we really mean to do anything with the consultation?” she said. “We cannot realistically take any conclusion from that at all.”
Cabinet member Don Massey said he had publicised the consultation by every conceivable means but believed that people failed to respond only when they are content with the proposals.
Councillor Francis said that in previous years there had been Roadshows, and council attendance at the Donkey Derby and in supermarkets and the response level had been five times higher.
Councillor Massey said he was no longer prepared to spend the money he is trying to save on consultations.
The discussion item I was waiting for was Agenda Item 8. What will happen to the IT contract with SopraSteria which expires next March and is there any hope for an improved website and an end to the misery of constant time outs on the democracy sub-domain?
Despite cabinet member Massey believing that Steria has provided the council with a good service, the welcome news is that Steria has been ditched in favour of a 45% cheaper contract with Northgate Public Services. There will be “an early decant from the data centre at 9 Brampton Road, releasing this site to the growth Agenda”. No one asked any questions.
There was a brief self-congratulatory report on the success of a sub-committee which had withdrawn a Local Welfare Scheme apparently without anyone noticing. Enquirers were being referred to voluntary groups and other providers, housing associations etc. There have been no new enquiries since 17th August.
The cabinet member’s formal report was the last significant item on the Agenda but Don Massey revealed nothing of widespread interest. Only one councillor made any comment. Daniel Francis referring to the ward boundaries consultation, said there was little time left for councillors’ questions. Cabinet member Massey said the Conservatives had asked questions in good time and councillor Francis should have put his in earlier.
Labour leader Alan Deadman interjected that his party had asked questions earlier but an unnamed council officer had told him by email that there was no time to respond to Labour’s questions. Don Massey shook his head and the chairman hid behind a Standing Order and very abruptly told councillor Deadman that he must not pursue the issue further. The one party state won again.