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News and Comment February 2012

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17 February - Public Realm Scrutiny Committee

There was a meeting of the Public Realm Scrutiny Committee last night chaired by councillor Cheryl Bacon. The Agenda was 118 pages long and there were several supporting documents and it took 2½ hours to wade through the lot. If you are expecting a comprehensive report you have come to the wrong place.

The Agenda made for interesting reading but the meeting which consists mainly of short addresses by council officers followed by questions from councillors contrives to be tedious. It may be that there aren’t any interesting questions unanswered by the 118 pages and things are certainly not helped by the generally poor quality of the sound waves that reach the ears of the audience. The fact is, that apart from council officer Jane Richardson who is exemplary, no one has a clue about the use of their microphones. Even when they remembered to switch them on, everyone but Mrs. Richardson ignored their microphone and frequently turned their head away and/or drifted a couple of feet from it. The seating arrangement is such that half the councillors have their backs to the audience and the end result is poor audibility requiring close attention.

Mrs. Bacon opened the meeting by welcoming the public to the meeting and immediately prevented councillor Munir Malik from questioning why several actions required by the minutes of the last meeting had not found their way to the current Agenda. Apparently Bexley’s protocols do not allow for ‘Matters Arising’ and if some items get lost; then tough luck, that is the way it is. Councillor John Waters aided and abetted the chairman in this decision. During the next 150 minutes I learned a number of interesting things. Perhaps the most noteworthy (to me) are…

• During the past year 52% of the projects (by value) scheduled to produce savings under Strategy 2014 are completed. A further 20% are going according to plan and 28% are at risk of failing in some way.
• The average price of housing in the borough is £225,233 which is 0·9% lower than a year ago. The figure is the third lowest of all the London boroughs. A pity you can’t say the same about the council tax where we are 24th worst out of 32.
• Unemployment is rising but remains much better than the London average - except in a few pockets to the North of the borough where it is twice the London average.
• The Siemens CCTV contract has provided income from local housing associations but nothing from elsewhere. As a result the income from 3rd parties is £23,000 below target. The cost of BT line rental is £17,000 over budget. Not good.

Because much of the proceedings were tedious it was tempting to read ahead in the Agenda and I did. So it seems did councillor Brad Smith who on three occasions asked questions relating to a subject the meeting had not yet reached. His mistake was met with the amusement you might expect. Councillor Malik however was not so fortunate; he asked a question relating to Agenda item 6 after the meeting had moved on to item 7. He was told that he was too late and if necessary must address his question to the individual officer outside the meeting. This opens up a whole can of worms in my view. It deprives the other members of the committee an element of scrutiny and the same goes for the public. Why not go the whole hog and have all questions answered in private and not have public meetings in future? Shhh. Don’t give them ideas.

Councillor June Slaughter can come up with some nice signs of scepticism when she tries. She felt that some of the targets the council had set itself were far too easy and was concerned that the targets are what they are primarily to allow the council to blow its trumpet later. Mrs. Slaughter took a similar line when council officer Mike Frizoni told us that the proportion of children going to school by car had fallen significantly. Like everyone in the audience (I know it is true because I was the only one present at the late hour) who has ever attempted to drive around at 9 o’clock in the morning, Mrs. Slaughter had noticed how much easier it is during school holidays and felt things were getting worse not better. How do you get these figures she wanted to know. Mr. Frizoni said he goes into the classrooms and asks pupils for a show of hands. Sounds like a good scientific survey to me. Councillor Sybil Camsey observed that a £50,000 cycle shed at a school in her ward remains almost completely empty.

Many more questions were answered in similarly vague or imprecise manner. I noted the chairman answer one of councillor Malik’s questions about unemployment with “find out for yourself”. When he asked for next year’s target for unemployment the responsible officer said she didn’t know and when Munir asked what impact Crossrail and the Olympics might have on unemployment rates he went away empty handed again. Is it possible that only councillor Malik has a nose for the incisive question that goes to the heart of the matter? Other questions that required a numerical answer were met with “Not a huge number” and “Significant enough to notice”.

Councillor Tarrant drew attention to the fact that the council was touting for more advertising business, the latest idea is to place adverts on lamp posts, but at the same time £50,000 was being spent on getting rid of unsightly street clutter.

One thing that was made absolutely clear at the meeting is that the redevelopment of the Larner Road tower blocks will provide more homes than before, not fewer as some rumours would have you believe. The increased number will be small but there will be a lot more accommodation overall with more of the homes being ‘family’ instead of flats and bedsits. I’m not sure how you get more accommodation by switching from hi-rise to low-rise but the chairman was emphatic that that was the case.

The foregoing is necessarily a very condensed version of events. The complete Agenda is available on Bexley council’s website.


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