The priority when writing
the earlier report on last week’s Full Council meeting was brevity and alleviating boredom, whether it succeeded
is not for me to judge but where it certainly failed is in conveying the
intricacies of the budgetary argument between the Conservatives and the Labour opposition.
With that debate going on for two and a half hours there can be no possibility of covering everything but it may be worthwhile cataloguing the more interesting comments. My suspicion is that it will gain an audience of exactly 45!
Part one will deal only with the debate on a Labour budget amendment. A report on the Tories’ proposals will come later.
For months now the Conservatives have been poking fun at Labour Councillors for not coming up with any money saving ideas for next year’s budget, or indeed, any ideas at all so they may have been taken aback when Labour put forward an eleventh hour budget amendment, one that the Director of Finance confirmed represented a balanced budget.
The meeting began with the Council Leader bragging about her significant victory at the election last year and the inevitable brief reference back to Labour’s time in office.
She accepted that Bexley “had too many people in temporary accommodation” so she was going to bring forward her Housing Strategy. She said, and not without justification, that if the government gave Bexley the same grant that it does Greenwich the Council Tax in Bexley would be 30% lower. (That would put it in fifth best position in London instead of 25th and close to where it was 30 years ago.)
Cabinet Member David Leaf followed the Leader and wittered on for six and a half minutes. Along the way he claimed that the Labour opposition had twice last year voted against investing £30 million in housing and dreamt up from his vivid imagination that Labour Councillors were hoping that this year’s budget would “stumble and fall”.
He accused Labour Councillor Wendy Perfect (Labour, Northumberland Heath) of “deliberately misleading the public” about two million pounds of cuts when he was “putting £3·9 million of investment in”. He questioned her competency and accused her of preferring “spin and smears over substance and truth” while “ranting in this Chamber”.
Councillor Joe Ferreira (Erith), Labour’s housing spokesman then introduced his amendment the object of which was to allocate £1·5 million of unallocated funds to the housing crisis. Why had the Tories not spotted that money lying around?
The budget amendment may be read in full here. (Page 2.)
His theme that Central Government had cut funding for local authorities and their finances were now “at breaking point”. There had been “a 63% real terms cut in London since 2010. Housing and temporary accommodation costs in Bexley this year were £1·7 million over budget”.
The additional money he wished to see injected to the housing budget “was already sitting in the bank”.
Councillor Dave Putson (Labour, Belvedere) reminded everyone that several government ministers and the Prime Minister herself had said that austerity was over while Bexley Council had put it on the record that its “material [budget] shortfall was caused by Central Government”.
Councillor Dave Putson pulls the Tory housing budget apart.
Putson went on to say that Bexley’s investment in social housing
was non-existent and 222 homes purchased for
temporary accommodation was “pitiful”. He didn’t let other budget items off the
hook either, for the first time ever the education budget had gone negative.
(Bexley is spending £3·2m. more than it receives in grants.) #doitforbexley was “a
cheapskate’s charter. Austerity was not over”.
The Mayor asked Councillor Leader Teresa O’Neill if she was prepared to modify her budget in line with the Labour amendment but she refused to countenance any extra spending on the homeless.
Cabinet Member Philip Read complained that Labour had ignored all previous opportunities to amend the budget and had contributed nothing. “A deafening silence.” He said that the Joint Scrutiny Committee Chairman (Councillor Dourmoush) repeatedly asked for contributions but Labour had offered none.
“Their rag bag proposals are presented far too late for scrutiny and action. Labour is a collection of slogans masquerading as a political party. Hot air and hysteria.” Councillor Read rounded it off with a very personal attack on Labour Leader Daniel Francis.
Councillor Stefano Borella (Labour, Slade Green & Northend) hit back with a list of the across the board steep (up to 30%) rises in fees, charges and taxes coupled with cuts to services foisted upon residents by Bexley Council. It was no surprise that Bexley had dropped its ‘Listening to you working for you’ strapline.
Councillor Nicola Taylor (Labour, Erith) reeled off some not very good statistics gleaned from planning applications. Last year barely half of the bigger schemes included any affordable housing and at the very best there might be 49 homes built at an affordable level of rent. “At the current rate of progress it will take more than 28 years to house the homeless.”
Councillor Esther Amaning said that 30 families a month were presenting themselves to the Council as homeless. She complained that the Tories kept blaming the former Labour administration for their failings. “That was ages ago.”
Cabinet Member Alex Sawyer referred back to Councillor Putson’s description of the provision of 222 houses as “pitiful”. He had just spent another £5 million on houses and said that Labour’s complaint when contrasted with their proposed expenditure of £1,459,136 “was hypocritical. There is nothing more nauseating than a hypocritical socialist”.
Councillor Wendy Perfect embarked on a rerun of her earlier complaints with particular emphasis on the negative education budget.
Councillor Mabel Ogundayo (Labour, Thamesmead East) said that housing people outside the borough caused them a great deal of extra expense because their roots were still in Bexley. “it is imperative that this administration goes back to their government and sets out their case for suporting our residents better”
Cabinet Member for Adults’ Services Brad Smith accused Councillor Perfect of “either misunderstanding his proposals or deliberately misrepresenting them”.
Councillor Sally Hinkley (Labour, Belvedere) objected to the Tory assumption that “Labour was somehow to blame for everything. Labour has only been in control in Bexley for four out of the past forty four years. It is about time they blamed their own government”.
She said that when a chargeable garden waste service was introduced the recycling rate dropped by 3% and now the charge was going up by another £5. “It works against our goal of an increase in recycling rates.” She didn’t like the idea of charging for entry to the gardens at Hall Place either.
The Planning Committee fights for more parking space for residents but then drives motorists away with 20% hikes in parking charges, she said. “Why on earth are we not updating parking policy to encourage the widespread use of cleaner or electric vehicles?”
Deputy Leader Louie French said that his “big issue with the amendment is that it doesn’t say how the money should be spent” and Mayor Sadiq Khan’s failure to meet his affordable homes target was having “a big impact on Bexley”.
Bexley Council is having to spend money on fighting against the Mayor’s plans which are not appropriate to Bexley and his failure to deliver Crossrail and the cutting of the transport grant “is not helping at all”.
Labour Leader Daniel Francis (Belvedere) went back to 2016 when the Conservatives slashed £12·5 million from the Adults’ Services budget. The budget now is less than it was eight years ago despite all the inflationary pressures.“The cuts have gone too far” and “the amount we collect in Council Tax in the past six years has increased by a third”.
Continuing to criticise the way local authorities are treated he asked, “who is responsible for this policy? It is the Member of Parliament for Old Bexley & Sidcup, the Secretary of State for Local Government.”
“Which is the new Cabinet Member for Finance [David Leaf] most proud of? Agreeing budget cuts that included £355,000 of savings that did not exist, was it setting a deficit education budget of £3·2 million, was it spending [almost inaudible so may be wrong) 27% of reserves in one year, increasing the overspend of £800,000 to £2·9 million in one year or increasing the budget gap from £14 million last November to over £18 million now?”
Cabinet Member Leaf replied with something rude, Councillor Francis objected and a Tory voice rang out “Be quiet”. It was all rather noisy. He criticised all the Labour Councillors one by one. Councillor Putson in particular was “disgusting” for his #doitforbexley comment. His criticism of Labour politicians was so wide ranging that he even managed to drag in Jeremy Corbyn’s Deputy, Tom Watson.
Cabinet Member John Fuller defended his decisions on education and highlighted his successes while being constantly barracked by his opposite number, it sounded like the yelling of “Rubbish” to me and whatever it was the Mayor objected to it. Councillor Fuller had been to the Commons and written to the Minister asking for more money. “The SEN team is doing an excellent job.”
Councillor Craske delivered a political diatribe rebutting everything of which the Conservatives had been accused. It was not without its amusing moments (in-jokes about Councillor Hackett’s defection) and he was not going to support the “Labour nonsense”.
Leader O’Neill rounded things off with more of the same. The Labour amendment was “smoke and mirrors” and every Tory duly voted it down.