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Bonkers Blog February 2019

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11 February - Bexley’s Budget. Conservatives ask no questions; no one has any bright ideas

Rather more often than I would like the meetings of the Abbey Wood Traders’ Association clash with something arguably more important in the Civic Offices.

Such was the case last Wednesday but the AWTA has to take precedence. All that can be revealed about that meeting is that the Abbey Arms has apparently got a three-ish month reprieve and will not close in March after all.

Refurbishment and a greater emphasis on food remains the likely outcome.

As a result of my absence Councillor Andy Dourmoush ran his Joint Budget Overview and Scrutiny meeting before an empty public gallery but fortunately the webcast audio problems had been fixed.

TweetThe Chairman said what the meeting was for. “It is to draw from the results of the consultation and to move ahead and make recommendations or alternative proposals to the Cabinet going forward.”

He made it clear that he did not want to hear any political grandstanding of the kind so loved by certain Councillors.

Councillor Joe Ferreira (Labour, Erith) asked when the “temporary accommodations pressures” were first noticed and built into the budget. Also how many properties the Council owns that could be used for temporary accommodation but weren’t and how many affordable homes had been built.

Deputy Director Bryce-Smith said “the TA problems had been known for some time and were particularly acute in the last year. There had been a big TA procurement exercise. We were looking at moving to over 400 contract properties, a 5% increase but we actually ended up with a 20% increase.”

“The Council has invested over sixty million in buying over 200 properties, some needed some work but we are looking at only two or three void properties.”

“There is new affordable housing being built but we are seeing a loss overall because of the need to regenerate the borough. The loss is one of the reasons for the increase of TA. The loss will continue into next year.” An extra £2·2 million will have to be spent next year assuming certain savings (half a million) prove possible.

Deputy Leader Louie French said that “affordable housing approvals [in Bexley] are at a higher rate than London as a whole. 41% versus 33%.”

Councillor Brenda Langstead (Labour, Slade Green & North End) pointed to  the large overspend” on Adults’ and Heath Services. Cabinet Member Brad Smith said that everything had been done to keep the overspend under control but there had “in a demand led service been unrealistic expectations”.

Councillor Linda Bailey (Conservative, Crook Log) asked if there was confidence on the Children’s Services budget and Cabinet Member Read said there was. “The needs of children are at the forefront of everything we do.”

Councillor Stefano Borella (Labour, Slade Green & North End) noted that Bexley was to contribute less money to the GLA’s concessionary fares schemes. “What are the reasons for this?”

A complicated answer said it was all to do with rolling averages but “the reduction was real”. The Hopper Fare had had an impact.

Councillor Cafer Munur asked if the Council knew where its care related equipment was because the NHS apparently didn’t. Deputy Director Stuart Rowbottom said he knew where it was but maybe collection wasn’t as good as it should be.

Councillor Eileen Pallen (Conservative, Bexleyheath) referred to the higher charges proposed for domiciliary care services and “the 16% uplift given to care providers. How much of that 16% went on increased quality assurance?” The Cabinet Member for Adults’ Services said “there is no direct link” but some of the care agencies have spent the money on improving their own data systems. The Deputy Director said that “the straight answer is none”.

Former Adults’ Services Cabinet Member Councillor Pallen did not think any of that was good enough but the Deputy Director said that Bexley’s Care Agencies had moved “from being in the lowest quartile to better than average”.

Councillor Wendy Perfect (Labour, Northumberland Heath) was concerned about the sustainability of the expenditure on high needs children; (Educational, Health and Car Plans). She was told that the costs would certainly rise and the Council Leader said it was a nationwide problem and she had written to the Secretary of State about it.

Councillor Langstead wanted to know what the assessed charges for equipment, crutches etc. were to be based on and what they might actually be. The Cabinet member batted the question across to his Deputy Director who said “it depends” but he would seek “full costs for care”. There was “national guidance which the Council follows”.

Unless I misunderstood it that answer did not answer the question.

Councillor Munur (Conservative) asked what was in place to help people who found themselves subject to the sudden “hike” in care charges. He was told that if clients reduced their level of care it may indicate a reluctance or inability to pay the increased charges “and alarm bells would ring”.

Councillor Borella asked about garden waste services and in particular the charge for additional bins. A charge of £38 for the first bin and £35 for subsequent bins will go forward to Cabinet. Cabinet Member Peter Craske said that the increased charges were supported by those who participated in the consultation. Councillor Borella said that in the consultation only 39% of respondents were in favour of the increase.

Councillor Borella also wanted to know about the revenue for the Westfield Lane (Welling) and Avenue Road (Bexleyheath) car parks which had their charges reduced a couple of years ago because they were uncompetitive with the nearby railway station car parks. Mr. Bryce-Smith said without any obvious enthusiasm that the £1 reduction “had resulted in some improvement”. There is still spare capacity at those car parks.

Councillor Ferreira said that a table of savings did not appear to add up properly. The discrepancy of £355,000 was confirmed.

Councillor Perfect had another question on SEN transport costs and was sceptical about how a new software tool could save £800,000. She had put the question to the Cabinet Member at the beginning of December and was told he was confident that the saving was realistic. In the 25 working days since then the projected saving has reduced by £400,000. Is the Cabinet still confident it can be achieved? The Director of Children’s Services got pretty close to admitting that back in December they didn’t know what they were doing.

Cabinet Member David Leaf said that budget processes get refined and that Councillor Perfect should not be shocked. Councillor Perfect said she was shocked. She had asked her question twice and Councillor Diment had queried it too but they received definitive assurances.

Councillor Leaf came back with a 15 year old Labour budget with which to taunt Councillor Perfect. It too had changed. Councillor Leaf was the first to ignore the Chairman’s plea to rise above such juvenile behaviour.

Councillor Ferreira queried two more minor budget savings and the Director of Finance reassured him on both. Cabinet Member Leaf went into echo mode as he usually does.

Councillor Borella asked about the reduction in grants to the voluntary sector and the Community Libraries and did they support it? Had the Cabinet Member had conversations with these people? Cabinet Member Craske refused to give details of any meetings. The libraries had been “busy generating their own income. They are flourishing. Blackfen has doubled its number of members.” Councillor Craske took the opportunity to ask if anyone had any alternative proposals.

Councillor Perfect came back with yet another question, this time about School Forums. Was its budget subject to annual review. Yes it would be.

Councillor Borella was back to the waste services again. What were the financial implications of reducing the frequency of collections? Cabinet Member Craske said it would be fundamentally wrong to make decisions on an unpublished Sub-Committee report.

Surely that sub-Committee must know the financial implications of the various options? Councillor Borella very obviously took the same view but he still didn’t get an answer.

He asked several more obscure questions about the services provided by Serco and their employment of about 25% agency staff. Deputy Director Bryce-Smith provided some inevitably technical answers.

Councillor Ferreira came back with another set of obscure questions on housing and once again Mr. Bryce Smith provided suitably complex answers.

Councillor Borella - him again. Were the redundant waste bins going to be collected when the wheelies were rolled out? Yes, probably.

Councillor Langstead. Is the £2·9 million Disabled Facilities Renewal Grant from the government going to be passed on to residents? Cabinet Member Alex Sawyer said that subject to means testing it would be.

And after a less than scintillating 90 minutes the meeting came to an end. A non-stop barrage of questions from Labour councillors and pretty much nothing from the Conservatives, whipped into subservience no doubt.

The Chairman indicated his disappointment that no Councillor Conservative or Labour came up with any new ideas for saving money. I'm not sure why he would expect Labour to be pushing for more cuts than there are already: they correctly questioned some of the arithmetic and reasons that lie behind them.

 

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