A little over a year ago Bexley Council was on the receiving end of an excoriating Peer Review on their Scrutiny procedures which somehow the ruling party managed to spin into a positive.
In a sense it may have been. Scrutiny Committees were made smaller and the Chairmanship changed - all for the better as far as I can judge. The only downside is that there are now four to be monitored instead of only three.
As a spectacle, Scrutiny Committees have been more interesting but as for doing their job more thoroughly I am not so sure. There were at most only two or three questions yesterday evening which by any stretch of the imagination could be called probing.
The occasion was the Resources and Growth Overview and Scrutiny Committee where Councillor Andy Dourmoush (Longlands) took charge and did his usual good job of ensuring no time was wasted.
Councillor Howard Jackson (Conservative, Barnehurst) asked Cabinet Member David Leaf if he had any updates on the report printed in the Agenda (Item 5) a week ago. Not the most probing of questions but it allowed Councillor Leaf to run over a few points relating to the Facilities Management contract. Amey has been shown the door and Kier and others are angling for the new contract.
Councillor Joe Ferreira (Labour, Erith) asked about the companies that had shown an interest so far but the Cabinet Member reminded him the the contract had not yet gone for tender and comment might be commercially sensitive.
Councillor John Davey (Conservative, West Heath) asked a question on a subject close to his heart. Will the Council be changing the tendering process when Britain leaves the European Union? Brexiteer Cabinet Member David Leaf said that EU and UK law on the subject was the same.
Item 6 on the Agenda was the report on the success (or otherwise) of the new Scrutiny Committees, a follow up the the critical Peer Review. Councillors Linda Bailey (Conservative, Crooklog) and Daniel Francis (Labour, Belvedere) both said it was a very good report, however only Councillor Francis attempted to probe any deeper. He thought it was “odd” that only the Resources Scrutiny Committee was being given an opportunity to comment on the report. There was not a lot that the Resources Chairman could do about what was decided by the other Chairmen.
Item 7 provoked a question from Joe Ferreira. It was about forthcoming Digital Services and in particular some interesting developments with Bexley’s contribution to Fix My Street.
It will be possible to do clever things like identify a particular street light on an interactive map. It is not something I have used myself but looks to be very impressive.
I quite often find myself having to look at all 32 of the London Borough websites and in my opinion they fall into three categories. Not too bad, just about tolerable; a bit of a struggle but you get there in the end with only the occasional expletive and absolutely bloody awful. Bexley’s, while not perfect, and Search could so with an overhaul falls firmly into the least bad category. A revamp of Search is coming which will please Councillor Davey whose opinion of it is similar to my own.
Councillor Davey thought the telephone system could do with some modernisation too, not just queue position announcement but also guidance about when the system might be less heavily loaded. Improvements are on the way.
Agenda Item 8 (The Local Plan) attracted Councillor Ferreira’s attention again and he commented for a couple of minutes - but no question.
Cabinet Member Leaf’s report included references to “the fantastic job” by the electoral team in May and said that no foreign national in Bexley was left without the appropriate EU voting forms. The webcasting contract has been extended by four years and enhanced at a similar cost to the past four years.
Cabinet Member Louie French had been particularly busy reviewing comments about the Town Centre Strategy and organising several summer events in town centres. A planning application has been made for the Sidcup cinema and demolition of the old Blockbuster store should take place over the Summer.
Item 10 of the Agenda was on homelessness. Councillor Francis said there are cases where residents’ housing questions go unanswered because “staff are struggling with their case loads” and if Councillors become involved the Council finishes up spending more money than if it provided adequate staffing levels.
The written report showed that a change of policy would see ex-servicemen with medical conditions going to the top of the waiting list in future.
Item 11, Sub Groups, attracted no questions at all but Item 12, The Work Programme, provided an excuse for Labour Councillors Ferreira and Francis to speak their mind over Post Offices closures. They thought Bexley Council should assert itself more.
in Abbey Wood, albeit half a road width over the borough boundary, the Post Office had closed with no consultation in Bexley and no prospect of alternative arrangements being made. The same had happened in Slade Green, shut “with no notice whatsoever”. Councillors were informed two months after the event.
The Sidcup Post Office is about to close, Bexley Village Post Office was closed for nine months without alternative arrangements and Bexleyheath Post Office has been closed some days and Belvedere Nuxley Road for a whole week.
The Council Officer, Nick Hollier, didn’t think it was a matter for this Committee. Councillor Francis said he had been advised otherwise.
Discussions will continue outside the meeting.
What conclusions can one draw from the new look Scrutiny meetings? If last night’s is typical, only the Labour Members ask serious questions. Maybe everything is so well run that one can expect nothing more.