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News and Comment December 2011

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7 December (Part 2) - Costs up, income down but profits rise. It must be magic

If you have been paying attention over the last year or so you will know that it is practically certain that councillor Peter Craske made up the numbers that he claimed justified the three fold increase in the price of Residents’ Parking Permits. We were asked to believe that organising and enforcing parking in a relatively small number of locations for just a couple of hours a day soaked up almost as much money as the borough wide 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. (with variations) restrictions then in force. When the council’s accounts were opened for inspection in July no one could come up with any justification for Craske’s numbers. Then to cap it all the full parking accounts for the year 2010/2011 were not made available. Certain documents have nevertheless come to light and with them some interesting figures which may not be a product of councillor Craske’s fertile imagination.

Straight away one can see that staff costs have rocketed from £460,000 to £522,000 between 2010 and 2011. That’s right, a 13·5% increase at a time when Bexley council is supposed to be cutting costs and improving efficiency. So presumably the work load has shot up? Doesn’t look like it. Income from fines is down by 1%, income from parking fees is down 21%. Income overall is down by 6·1% but Bexley council has engineered a rise in employment costs of 13% plus. Only in the public sector… Presumably I was hallucinating when I read Mike Frizoni’s very recent assurance that his department represented “true benefits to residents of the borough”

Despite the increased staff costs and reduced income Bexley council still managed to increase its surplus on its parking account compared to the previous year. Would I be cynical to suggest that costs were artificially inflated in 2010 to justify the price hikes and have now reverted to the norm? Possibly; after all the cost of the enforcement contract went up despite the promise that the new one was better for hard pressed council tax payers. Not up by much but certainly no saving.

Perhaps the surplus soared because of the massive efficiency savings achievable from a Parking Permit scheme that was costing around £240 for every permit issued. Nope! Wasn’t that either. Administration costs went from £49,000 to £58,000. Those who are forced to purchase the wretched things are bound to be grateful that the cost of producing the scrap of paper has risen by 18·4%. Frittering away so much extra money must have taken real dedication.

One of the more fanciful of councillor Craske’s figures a year ago was that it cost £36,000 a year to paint white lines around CPZ parking bays although it later transpired that none were repainted in the year in question. The accounts state that the total of such maintenance activities was £110,000 in 2009/10. £36,000 for white lining always did look like an attempt to boost costs in order to justify price hikes and very possibly it was. A year later the total cost had fallen from £110,000 to a much more believable £3,000. Does anyone believe that Bexley council has made a 97% saving? Creative accounting seems to be alive and well at Bexley Civic Offices. Probably the auditor should be asked for advice.

Another massive saving comes under the heading ‘ALG-TEC’ which drops from £102,000 a year to absolutely nothing in 2010. And what is ALG-TEC anyway? It took a bit of research because it is an organisation that disappeared back in 2006. The Association of London Government Transport and Environment Committee. It was reincarnated as the London Council’s Transport and Environment Committee (LC-TEC). It provides the Parking Appeals Service and runs the Freedom Pass scheme. Why is Bexley council still using the old name five years on? It must be more incompetence.

Very strange that Bexley council’s parking accounts included the £102,000 payment last year but this year they don’t. It doesn’t seem at all likely that LC-TEC didn’t get paid, Freedom Passes are still alive and well as far as I know, ditto air quality monitoring and the host of other things that LC-TEC funds, so most likely a similar sum will be found in another set of accounts somewhere. Perhaps parking services got lumbered last year to assist in the case for bumping up charges. There is no footnote to the accounts to explain why LC-TEC wasn't paid but then I suppose some of Bexley’s smoke and mirrors accounting would be very hard to explain.

So what is the upshot of all this? Prices are all up. Staff costs are well up. Income has plummeted yet the parking account is more healthy than ever before. More than 17% better off and pretty much all accounted for by the removal of what looked like a fiddle last year. Is the £842,000 surplus being handed back to ripped off motorists in the shape of the cheapest parking in South East London or more reasonable Parking Permit costs? No of course not. The accounts state that it is all handed over to “various Transport Strategy schemes”. That will be more obstacle courses and yellow lines then. Maybe the extra £62,000 wasted on additional staff costs is the least of Craske’s various evils.


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