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News and Comment February 2020

Index: 2020

17 February - Scrutinising Bexley’s Budget

ChairmanCouncillor Andy Dourmoush makes a good Committee Chairman and he is a caring Councillor too; but he asked me not to mention why I say that, so I won’t.

Last Tuesday he was in charge of looking over the budget due to go before the next Full Council meeting - that’s Council Tax setting - when Bexley will vie with others for being 25th highest taxing borough in London. He asked for ideas that would help the Council make better decisions.

Labour Councillor Wendy Perfect (Northumberland Heath) kicked off proceedings by asking three questions. The biggest expenditure in Children’s Services is staff costs and the budget doesn’t fully cover those costs because it assumes vacancies of 8%. “Shouldn’t the figure be brought down?”

One of the biggest costs within the Children’s Education Directorate is caused by those leaving care and going into temporary accommodation. “Shouldn’t there be more money in the budget?”

The schools grant deficit is £7·2 million this year. “What will it be in 2021?”

Finance officers said that there was always a vacancy factor in the Children’s Services budget. It is about £2·3 million and is absorbed and offset by other Children’s Services expenditure. To assume 0% would increase the budget by £2·3 million. The anticipated deficit in 2021 will be £11·2 million.

All the budgets are under constant review and there are discussions to see how the needs of care leavers can be met.

Cabinet Member Read said that housing pressures are increased by the number of “unaccompanied asylum seeking children who very often appear to be 17 or 18 and we have to take care of them. It makes it difficult”.

Councillor Cafer Munir (Conservative, Blackfen & Lamorbey) asked about the cost of “pay awards to exceptional staff”. The figure was unavailable at the meeting. Undeterred, Councillor Munir asked about the use of pool cars that staff are encouraged to use and currently costing £500 per month. “How may cars should there be to make that [more?] effective?

The Human Resources Manager said the contract is flexible so can be changed at will, the car booking software determines the optimum number of cars.

Councillor Munir commented on the £400,000 expenditure on staff overtime. Which departments are responsible for it? Once again the information was not immediately available.

Councillor Eileen Pallen (Conservative, Bexleyheath) said that “we are told an overtime review is being done. Possibly it would have been more helpful for it to have been done so that we could put meat on the bones of the [budget] proposal”. Ouch!

She was also concerned about consulting with staff and specially mentioned the use of pool cars instead of their own. She was told that the consultation documents were nearing completion and would go out soon.

Councillor Stefano Borella (Labour, Slade Green and Northend) queried whether the revamped Hall Place would open on its most recently revised date. Cabinet Member Craske was very hesitant as if he was far from sure but said the planning application wasn’t approved until November and the Environment Agency wasn’t entirely happy with “certain issues”. Stefano’s question went unanswered but I suspect it should have been a No.

Councillor Borella asked about moving more libraries to voluntary status and a further reduction in opening hours. Cabinet Member Craske said “there is a review going on at the moment and nothing has been decided”. Councillor Borella reminded Councillor Crake that Belvedere Library is now closed for an extra day as a result of cuts made last year. He went on to list a number of instances of deteriorating library services but was stopped in his tracks by the Chairman because he considered it not to be a budget issue.

Cabinet Member David Leaf was asked why or how “the consultancy spend was being reduced by 10%”. “It is a prudent figure as a starting point” is all he had to say. A figure clutched from the air.

Councillor Borella said that the Council was introducing three additional automated vehicle traps but Cabinet Member Craske was less than forthcoming as to their location. There are eleven such sites at the moment. Councillor Borella went on to ask if parking charges could be pollution level based to encourage greener motoring. Councillor Craske’s reply neatly avoided mentioning the word parking but he did look forward to having more electric charging points.

Councillor Seymour (Conservative, Crayford) said that there are recycling companies willing to sweep our streets for nothing to gather precious metals that fall from vehicles, catalytic converters and the like, but he cannot get any Council officer to show any interest.

The budget proposals include expenditure on infrastructure which is frequently mentioned on Bonkers…

Last year £2·6 million was spent on Harrow Manorway (another £2 million next year), £1·8 million around Abbey Wood station, £40,000 on the Abbey Wood Controlled Parking Zone, £50,000 on bus lanes, £96,000 on electric vehicle charging points, £662,000 on pot holes, £61,000 on additional cameras to catch motorists, £2·7 million on wheelie bins and - very topical right now - £200,00 on flood risk management.

 

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