I took myself along to last Thursday’s Resources Overview and Scrutiny meeting and it was definitely the place to go if you wanted to witness Bexley Council imposing massive inconvenience on its citizens. Outside the Civic Offices the scene was one of total gridlock around the two new roundabouts. I tried hard to get photos of the work going on but in the main the view was blocked by crawling and stationary traffic.
In the best traditions of Bexley’s road planning a pedestrian controlled traffic light had been placed at an exit from the roundabout causing it to be blocked from all directions. Andrew Bashford at his very best.
Inside the Chamber things were very different, three Conservative Councillors and a couple from Labour all very friendly and welcoming and Chairman Steven Hall did his usual efficient, if somewhat inflexible, job from the top table.
Steven is backed by two Vice-Chairmen on a generous and probably unnecessary £3,000 a year. They are Councillors Andy Dourmoush and Maxine Fothergill but on this occasion one was missing.
Councillor June Slaughter (Conservative, Sidcup) was first to speak and asked why it was that the Council went to the expense of reprinting Cabinet papers within the Scrutiny Agenda when they were easily available elsewhere.
I have commented before that it make things difficult for a member of the public who has dropped into just one Scrutiny meeting, the Agenda would become difficult to follow. However I have come around to the view that such a thing never happens and I am the only person who bothers to attend, in which case Councillor Slaughter probably has a valid point. However she was told that it is a statutory requirement. It’s only taxpayers’ money so who cares?
Councillor Louie French (Conservative, Falcon Wood & Welling) spent quite some time thanking finance officers for doing their job and putting Bexley into what he thought was one of the best positions in London, however he was concerned about a £400,000 overspend. Unfortunately he failed to reference the Agenda page number and I spent far too much time hunting down what he was talking about and thereby missed his point.
The finance officer explained that whatever it was was a one-off contingency transfer and did not seem too concerned about it. I suspect she is right, the finance officers usually are.
Councillor Danny Hackett (Labour, Lesnes Abbey) referred to the savings in Committee Services which will flow from the forthcoming reduction in Councillor numbers. How much comes from each? No one had the figures to hand but the total might reach £400,000.
Councillor Colin Tandy wanted to chip in that the ‘Financial Plans and Draft Budget’ was “an extremely good piece of work, an excellent piece of work, that shows that this Council is in control”. He did not have a question.
Councillor David Leaf (Conservative, Longlands) said something with which I can entirely agree. “Don’t talk down our economy” he said. He too thought Bexley was now in a very good place financially.
I was also right behind Councillor Leaf when he said we had a Mayor of London “who wants to whack the Council Tax up as high as possible following his mismanagement of resources. One again residents foot the bill for mistakes and poor financial practices”.
Councillor John Husband (Labour, Lesnes Abbey), quoting from some report or other on the UK’s financial future said the “possibility of a recession is high”. Various voices said that a different view could be found in different newspapers. Finance Cabinet Member Don Massey said that “journalist will talk about what they want” - as long as it is not about a libel case lost by a Bexley Councillor presumably.
Councillor Tandy (Conservative, St. Mary’s) wanted to comment too but the Chairman interrupted him. He tried again but was quickly slapped down, rather rudely I thought.
Moving on to Treasury Management, Councillor French returned to his previous theme, “applauding” officers for their decisions. He also had a question about interest rates following the Bank of England’s announcement earlier in the day. He was told that the Council borrows at about 3% and it has long term investments.
Like me Councillor Nick O’Hare (Conservative, Blendon & Penhill) wondered if that was good when interest rates might be rising. Bexley Council has never pursued any risky investments, he was told, Icelandic banks etc. and a finance officer said it was “not locked in” and had “flexibility“.
Neither he nor the Cabinet Member showed any concern. The consensus is that they steered the borough through difficult times in the past, they expect to do so in the future.
Councillor Leaf asked about “Capita resilience” following the company’s profits warning. Again no one was particularly concerned. A finance officer said Capita had “prompted us to make sure we are happy and look at them in detail and that is an ongoing process”.
Cabinet Member Massey said the Capita contract was due for renewal in 2019, “probably the timing is right for us”. He had heard stories about Capita “a couple of weeks before it hit the news”.
Outside the meeting Cabinet Member Massey has said that he “has no immediate concerns” and is “prepared to respond to any possible supplier failure”. What else could someone locked into a contract reasonably do?
Councillor Dourmoush (Conservative, Longlands) asked if contract penalty clauses were properly enforced. Things like jobs that are not finished on time.
The answer was long and rambling which raised suspicions and Councillor Dourmoush came back, asking his question more forcefully - and louder! He was concerned about taxpayers’ money. He then got some sort of assurance. The penalties are “applied rigorously”. Why couldn’t they have said that in the first place?
Councillor Deadman (Labour, North End) asked what many residents would want to ask, “who checks up on whether works are done properly or not?” He quoted examples of jobs that clearly had not been done properly.
After a long delay the Council officers said it wasn’t them, it must be someone else.
The meeting went on for another 20 minutes but that was the end of financial matters, the rest can wait for another time.