Full Council meetings are usually fairly interesting but not yesterday’s. It’s only purpose was to quickly approve the
3·99% Council Tax increase (along with countless increases in fees and
charges) and allow everyone to go home but too many Conservatives like the
sound of their own voices and simply have to chip in with how much they are in
favour of another maximum increase. The meeting dragged on for two and a half hours.
It was poorly attended by the public and only the new Local Democracy Reporter me, and A.N. Other had braved the rain. They can hardly be blamed for staying away, the seating had been arranged so that no one could see what was going on and if you are not familiar with their voices or can’t recognise them from the back of their heads, no one has any chance of following in detail which Councillor is saying what to whom.
For the same reason effective photography was impossible.
Council Leader Teresa O’Neill began proceedings by saying that setting the budget was “a juggling act” and she “didn’t like raising Council Tax. Demand rises year on year but our income goes down and down”. Government grants “have been one off settlements. But we have a Conservative government with a healthy majority and we look forward to the budget and the spending review later this year. We hope for a multi-year settlement to give some certainty.”
Councillor David Leaf seconded the proposed Budget and lost no time in castigating the Labour Party’s record when in office. He said they issued more than 700 Press Releases in 2005/6. “Council Tax is lower now in real terms than the level we inherited in 2006.” [Inflation since then has been 46%. Bexley Council Tax has inflated by 32%.]
He was particularly pleased that Bexley would no longer advertise jobs in “that failing organ of fake news, The Guardian”. He objected to paying the salaries of journalists “who talk down our country”. He contrasted Budget setting with getting a man to the moon and back claiming the Budget was the more difficult task.
It was entirely reasonable that the Labour Group should propose a variation to the budget and they did. Unsurprisingly they wanted to offer help to the homeless. They later issued a Press Release.
One of their ideas was to buy back at cost price half the houses being built by BexleyCo in West Street, Erith so that the Council could deliver some much needed affordable housing and to look into the possibility of doing the same on any future BexleyCo building site.
They also wanted to see a £500,000 reduction on the spend on consultants which has reached staggering levels recently. Additionally they were looking for smaller cuts in the spending on young people up to age 25 and in Children’s Service more generally.
Labour Councillors Joe Ferreira and Wendy Perfect managed a few minutes in support of the alternative budget before Council Leader Teresa O’Neill objected to it.
Councillor Stefano Borella was undeterred and continued to support the amendment and complained about the various service cuts and the insults directed at the opposition for expecting better. “I am accused of being a Moaner, Miserable, Victor Meldrew and the Fly Tipper’s Friend.”
Councillor Dave Putson attacked the easy target of BexleyCo which has so far failed in all its endeavours. Councillor Esther Amaning was critical of Educational Services and blamed government cuts. Councillor Nicola Taylor took a similar line blaming “Tory austerity” for the borough’s problems especially the building over parks. Councillor Sally Hinkley spoke against the vast sums being spent on consultants and the cuts imposed on Belvedere Library. Various questions directed to Cabinet Members on behalf of her residents had gone unanswered.
Needless to say the Conservatives were very much against Labour’s ideas and unmoved by their persistent reference to the lack of affordable homes. Some of their responses demeaned their personal judgment and in that Cabinet Member Peter Craske took the prize; he likened the Labour Budget to a Pork Pie while the Conservative one was a Steak Pie with Ale. Councillor Craske has been something of an expert on Pork Pies over the years so probably knows what he is talking about.
The Labour Amendment was inevitably thrown out unanimously.
The grandstanding then began in earnest. A large number of Conservative Councillors spent five minutes each to proclaim the wonders contained within their own budget, how the Council Tax is lower in real terms than in 2006 without of course admitting that it compares less well with other London Councils than it did in 2006.
The Labour amendment was widely ridiculed for being short but the Labour Leader pointed out that the Conservative counter-proposals in 2002 through to 2005 were much shorter.
Councillor Alan Downingֹ’s (St. Mary’s & St. James) speech was well below his usual standard. “Another year with no alternative budget from Labour. Why is it that Labour hasn’t tried harder to show the people of Bexley that they care, about them? Is it that they actually don’t? We have heard all about the housing problems in Bexley but the problem is not alone in Bexley but in the country as a whole. Is it not about time that they really genuinely showed they understood what’s needed in Bexley? All we have had today is an amendment made up from headlines in the media. I just cannot understand what goes on opposite [us] in the chamber.”
Councillor Hall (East Wickham) was not an awful lot better. “The budget was the result of Bexley’s financial acumen. We must make difficult choices, it is truly a balancing act to meet the needs and aspirations of our residents. The easy thing to do is complain and make unrealistic demands on the government and bury your head in the sand. Sadly this has been the Labour approach for the past 14 years. It is amateur, juvenile, unproductive and plainly wrong. The people of this borough are not hoodwinked by such pathetic maneuverings.”
I made notes on 14 different Conservative Councillor’s speeches but they added nothing of substance. There really wasn’t any point in any of them other than point scoring. The Cabinet had spoken and there would be no turning back whatever the voting fodder said.