There are just a few oddments from the Budget Scrutiny meeting remaining that may be worthy of comment.
Councillor Cheryl Bacon (Conservative, Sidcup) said it was interesting to note that the budget report said it was in balance but gave no clue as to “how we got here because at our last meeting we were not near to balance”. She was also surprised to see that the pursuit of a new refuse contract being labelled “a possibility when in actual fact it is an actuality”. (Agendas are not what they used to be.) The Chairman said he too was not happy with Agendas “with no narrative”.
After the Finance Director offered explanations for several minutes, Councillor Seymour attempted to inject some common sense into the discussion. He said that “the key to all this is how we actually monitor performance and service delivery. We get emails from residents and they are the conduit by which we judge what we do. They criticise our services and it is very easy to be quite insular in the world of politics. The only people who matter are the residents out there.”
He was critical of the Council’s tendency to “set targets artificially low” so that it can be claimed that performance is above target. Councillor Seymour (Conservative, Crayford) is clearly not Cabinet Member material.
Sybil Camsey (Conservative, Crook Log) was another Councillor critical of the lack of details in reports, she wanted to know how Covid had affected SEN transport. Was the need for it and the costs reduced, and have drivers gone away to find more lucrative work. She was told there was “pressure” on transport but “it is cost effective”. Requests for transport had risen by 8% over the past year. The Councillor requested a proper answer in writing which means that a public meeting becomes anything but unless the FOI route is taken.
Councillor Borella had a question on libraries. “Why did the Chairman refuse the request to bring someone from community managed libraries to this meeting?”
The Chairman said this was a Budget Scrutiny meeting and libraries fall within the Places Scrutiny Committee’s remit and Councillor Borella had asked the same question at Public Cabinet. “This is not the forum to discuss the library situation.”
Councillor Borella (Labour, Slade Green) thought “it’s a very strange answer֨ and went on to cast doubt on the whole concept of Budget Scrutiny if the Committee was not going “to listen to people who are going to be impacted”.
The Chairman continued to say that he “felt it was inappropriate that we should have outside organisations come in to represent, specifically, the Slade Green library group that you are talking about…” The sentence tailed off but the meaning was already clear.
Councillor Cafer Munur (Conservative, Blackfen & Lamorbey) suggested that Councillor Borella was simply intent on “making political points out of it”.
Councillor Borella responded that he didn֦’t know and nobody knew what the impact of £90,000 of cuts over two years would have on community libraries. “It is not in the report.” (£427,000 on libraries overall, this year alone.)
Cabinet Member Craske said the Community Libraries are “content” with the cuts.
Councillor Borella shifted his focus to the £400,000 cut to the highways budget. It has been hidden in an impact assessment and not shown in budget papers. Councillor Craske said that the figure came about from swapping expenditure from Reactive to Capital budgets so nothing much changes. He said it had been in the papers previously, Councillor Borella said it hasn’t been and went on to complain that there is no “impact analysis” following staff cuts either. There have been losses in both highways and parks yet no one knows what those cuts to those teams will mean. “It begs the question again what is this Committee for if we don’t look at these things in more detail.”
The Chairman said that the next Budget Scrutiny meeting had been moved to July so that it can measure “the full impact of the proposals that are going on right now.”
Councillor Ferreira (Labour, Erith) sprung a surprise by suggesting that with five Directors Bexley only needs five Cabinet Members and maybe fewer Scrutiny Committees “It would save forty or fifty thousand pounds.”
Councillor Leader Teresa O’Neill thought it was “a proposal worthy of consideration” and an excuse to brag about the reduction of Councillor numbers from 63 to 45 first mooted in October 2010 and introduced in 2018. She said that at one time there were ten Cabinet Members and seven Scrutiny Committees and scored several political points along the way. (Labour raise allowances, Conservatives freeze them etc.)
A Master Class in not really saying anything. The Chairman said that the idea had been noted.