There was a rather special Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting in Bexley
on Tuesday evening, twice the size of normal and maybe a reaction to
the scathing Peer Review
of Bexley’s governance which said that their Scrutiny meetings were, in summary, a waste of time and money.
Despite that Bexley Council headlined only the positive; “a strong and stable political leadership over many years, under a Leader who is widely held in very high regard”. By similarly minded bureaucrats presumably.
The meeting was wholly devoted to next year’s budget proposals and presumably the Council was hoping for a good turnout by the public because they had put out the maximum possible number of chairs. The only persons present was the News Shopper reporter and me and only I stayed the course - all three hours of it.
The proposals are many and varied aiming at saving sums large and small, very approximately from £20,000 to £2,000,000.
Councillors asked a lot of questions but most elicited a response along the lines of ‘don’t worry your pretty heads about that, everything will be fine’. I’m not sure a report covering the answers will make for interesting reading but one will likely come later. Meanwhile here are the proposed highlights, many of them designed to give you a pain in the wallet.
• Staff reductions in Adult Social Care saving £250,000 on top of the £1 million already in the pipeline.
• There is a target of reducing reablement care packages by 80 in the coming year which would gain a net saving of £386,000.
• A further target is for the budget on disablement equipment to be reduced which might save £150,000 a year and anyone requiring a higher grade of equipment would be asked to pay for it.
• Fewer dementia sufferers would be placed in care homes resulting in a saving of “at least” £128,000 next year.
• Care services for which fees are charged will be raised to introduce a profit element for the Council to cover their costs. This will be in the region of 5 to 10%.
• Route planning software should allow saving on transport costs for Special Educational Needs pupils and for the adult disabled.
• The Council is aiming to provide services to schools which are currently provided by private companies. It could give an income of as much as £100,000 a year.
• Efficiency savings of £350,000 a year on placement of looked after children.
• Adoption services are looking to save £200,000 a year.
• Renegotiation of the Capita contract (mainly Council Tax collection) next year could save between a quarter and half a million pounds from 2020/21.
• The Council’s telephone system will be updated to include facilities commonly found commercially. Queue position, call back when busy etc. £50 to £100,000 saving.
• Staff who are not using their mobile phones will have them recalled. £3,000 a year.
• Staff will pay more for parking, currently about £2 a week.
• Car mileage rate reduced from the current 45 pence per mile. Total associated savings, £60 to £90,000 a year.
• Charges for vehicle crossovers to be reviewed.
• Community Safety budget to be reduced by £25,000 a year.
• Fewer books to be held in libraries and 20% less funding to Community Libraries. £80,000 rising to £120,000 after the first year.
• Friends of Parks Groups will see their grants halved from £40,000 to £20,000.
• The increased tree planting budget will go back down again now that the election has passed. The number of new trees planted will be only half of the level of natural wastage. (Disease, traffic accidents etc.)
• As already known, there will be big changes to refuse collection services and the garden waste collection service is likely to go up by £5 a year. Dependent on the final decision the savings could be close to £2 million a year.
• With the election safely out of the way, car parking and residents’ parking permits will all go up in price. Together with increased enforcement activity, the revenue increase could be as much as £934,000.
• Roads will be surveyed using artificial intelligence programs and deterioration spotted more quickly. £50,000 a year saving.
• Illuminated road signs will be replaced by reflective surfaces or LED. (£30,000)
• Suitable sites to be rented out for public wi-fi provision, another £30,000.
• Fees for obscure services like street renaming and numbering will all be increased to raise another £50,000 a year.
• Fees for accommodation at The Engine House, formerly The Thames Innovations Centre, are all set to rise. £100,000.
The above is just a selection of the changes which may affect Bexley residents directly but there are more. Some may look worse than they really are. With my eye on my own Adult Care responsibilities in East Ham I would say those ideas are not wholly bad. The waste and inefficiency in Newham must not be allowed to exist in Bexley but many of the others are simply ‘tax’ rises, some of them crafty ones; fees that are frozen as elections approach and go up when the electorate has been successfully deceived.
Councillors were free not only to ask questions but also to make suggestions and the one and only suggestion came from Councillor Alan Downing (Conservative). He said he had conducted a small survey and found that dog owners “would be very happy” to pay £20 for the privilege of exercising each of their mutts in a Council park. He offered the idea as “just a thought” to Cabinet Member Craske who appeared not to have known it was coming.
I thought his immediate reaction was less than enthusiastic. Maybe he cast his mind back to 2011 when he justified his tripling of residents’ car parking permits by claiming it cost more than £16 to even print the permits let alone to administer and enforce the CPZs.
Permits have gone digital since then but how could that apply to a dog? Would they have to be microchipped?
Having reviewed the audio tape I’ve concluded he only said that he would take the idea away for consideration. Well he could hardly reject it there and then could he?
(He spoke at some length but a rehearing reveals he was talking about parks more generally, not specifically the suggested dog tax.)
Yesterday the idea was floated around Twitter and widely condemned, not least by Labour activists. Today Councillor Craske has formally dumped the idea, which I might add was privately applauded by at least one of those Labour activists. It is not only the Tory Party which is split.
As can be seen from the full Twitter exchange, (click image) the Tories are furiously back paddling on the suggested dog tax which they correctly say was not a formal proposal. However the Tory claim that its consideration was “a blatant lie” is of course a blatant lie.
It probably took Councillor Craske by surprise and in my opinion he handled the situation the only way he reasonably could. Probably Councillor Downing is no longer on his Christmas card list.
Three days later he has announced that dogs will be free to roam. It is always possible that you might reach a different conclusion on what was initially said so here is the audio clip in full.
Storm in a dog bowl?
It doesn’t really amount to much does it? There are far more important things to be concerned about like those increased car parking charges and by how much they will clobber the struggling retailers.