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Bonkers Blog February 2019

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2 February - Bexley’s budget. When 18 minutes seems like five years

There were 4,165 responses to Bexley Council’s budget consultation and Council Leader O’Neill described them more diplomatically than I did. She said they have “shown up some misunderstandings”. Total ignorance might be more accurate.

ThorogoodPaul Thorogood the Director of Finance provided the formal statement. He forecast a balanced budget for the financial year about to start but there is an overspend for this year of just over £3 million. Provision of temporary accommodation is the main cause; the supply of houses has halved while the number of new homeless has gone up by 20%. He is planning for £19m. to cover growth in services and another £14m. for inflation.

64% of Business Rates is going to Bexley Council and the remainder to the GLA.

LeafCabinet Member for Finance David Leaf was as rambling as Mr. Thorogood was succinct. He droned on for 18 minutes and 27 seconds at his characteristic break neck speed pausing only to slag off the opposition party and neighbouring Greenwich Council. His address added nothing of interest to the debate and no part of it is worthy of highlighting here and its only merit was the amusement and occasional laughter he provided for his colleagues whose yawns were ill-disguised.

On reflection, Councillor Leaf did say one thing that attracted my attention. He said that one consultation respondent said that a four weekly residual waste collection should not be a problem and that a two to four month interval should be considered. That was not me but it could well have been. A two month interval would not usually represent a problem. I know of one household basically the same size as mine that manages to fill two bins most fortnights. Where do they get it all from and why do they have two bins anyway? #doitforbexley

Apart from quoting some of the sillier budget responses like a complaint that Teresa O’Neill is paid £280,000 a year he got through his budget speech without adding one iota of useful comment. Quite an achievement.

My old sparring partner Councillor Peter Craske came out with more good information in his one minute and eight seconds after first making a joke at Councillor Leaf’s expense.

He is going to use his budget to replace 1,200 old steel and concrete lamp posts which have come to the end of their life and will replace old style Keep Left bollards with new low maintenance illuminated ones. £600,000 will be spent on flood prevention schemes and there will be additional funding for the new Thamesmead Library.

He was critical of the London Mayor’s decision to cut the road maintenance budget but he plans to make up some of the deficit. Half a million will be spent on stabilising the Fraser Road embankment which slipped last year.

SmithCouncillor Brad Smith (Adults’ Services) was almost as brief and proud of being able to meet the increasing demands of the homeless. Costs have been reduced overall while services have improved due to efficiency improvements which is something he has said many times before. His evidence for it is that complaints have reduced.

Pay for care workers has been significantly increased which is yet another indication of Bexley Council’s all round improvement over the past year or three. Councillor Smith’s predecessor was cock-a-hoop when he announce he had screwed payment to care agencies down to the lowest possible level, by contrast Councillor Smith plans a £3·9 million budget increase.

Cabinet Member Philip Read (Children’s Services) was pleased that the vast majority of budget consultees appeared to be happy with the way things were going. He largely resisted the opportunity to bask in the glory of his OFSTED achievements but clearly intends to build on them.

FrenchDeputy Leader Louie French was concerned at the way the costs of homelessness were running well ahead of budget predictions. He wanted to take “a firm line with any form of fraud”.

“The success of the borough’s businesses was key to its future prosperity. They help to reduce the tax burden on local people.”

He was “disappointed” at Mayor Sadiq Khan’s decision to increase his tax take on Bexley residents by 9%. “His management of City Hall’s finances continues to cause grave concern for all local people in Bexley. He is ignorant of alternatives.”

Instead of spending money “on 1,300 front line [police] officers he has spent it on his PR department”.

I think Councillor French was telling us that Sadiq Khan is an intellectual pygmy intent on wrecking London, which of course he is.

Cabinet Member Alex Sawyer, always one for a good joke and calling a spade a spade, said he had aged five years since Councillor Leaf started to speak.

Being the last Cabinet Member to speak there was little left for him to say but indicated he would if necessary be critical of the new Police Borough Command Structure and labelled the homelessness situation in the country “disgraceful” and “spectacularly wrong”. He was pleased that the budget allowed “the purchase of about 17 more properties”.

Councillor Daniel Francis (Labour, Belvedere) drew attention to the fact that “here we are now three months after the Scrutiny meeting in October and the overspend for the financial year has almost quadrupled compared to what was previously presented”. He wondered “how on earth we are going to fill” next year’s £19m. projected budget gap. “Three months ago the Scrutiny Committee Chairman was refusing to answer questions. We were held in contempt quite frankly.”

“People in this building must have been aware of the overspend at the time.” He planned to ask his detailed questions at the next Joint Budget Scrutiny meeting.

The Chairman of that Committee, Councillor Andy Dourmoush said every Member of the Council would be encouraged to come forward with alternative budget proposals at his next meeting. (Let’s hope the webcast audio is corrected by then as I am unable to attend due to commitments elsewhere.)

Councillor Leaf managed to waste another three and a half minutes by contradicting Bexley’s Peer Review. He said “the Scrutiny process works very well indeed and Councillor Francis’ criticism was beneath him”.

The budget proposals were moved by Councillor Leaf and seconded by Councillor Craske and approved unanimously.


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