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News and Comment June 2012

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21 June (Part 1) - Read all about it

Philip ReidIt’s always obvious when a Committee meeting is going to be a pre-rehearsed charade, all the members troop out of their inner sanctum at the very last minute and get through the agenda pretty quickly with nothing much of interest coming to light. Yesterday’s Finance Scrutiny Committee meeting was such a meeting. The new Chairman is Philip Read, who makes false statements to the police hoping to see bloggers put behind bars. Having said that he proved to be one of the more effective chairmen, exercising his authority with generally good humour. He began by welcoming members of the public which consisted solely of Bexley Council Monitoring Group (BCMG) members plus myself. We were all given the usual warning of not being allowed to make recordings which is probably a good thing because I really wouldn’t want to listen to any council buffoon a second time.

With little in the way of interesting facts to absorb, the audience, well me anyway, looks forward to examples of that buffoonery and Mrs. Maureen Holkham is usually a good source. However this time she was an enormous disappointment. The best she could manage was an explanation of some divergent figures. “There is a difference between different things”. Then when, much later, someone asked a question that wasn’t strictly within the domain of the Finance Committee and Paul Moore, the Director, was unable to answer it she volunteered to do so. Her answer was that she didn’t know the answer but she knew a man who did.

Ms. Holkham briefly mentioned a survey of satisfaction with the council to be conducted over the coming year. The Electoral Reform Society is being paid to conduct it. Councillor Alan Deadman muttered something about “loaded questions” but nobody took the bait. Aren’t loaded survey questions the norm?

Waitrose petitionNo committee meeting is complete without a question or three from councillor Munir Malik. Chairman Reid said he was limited to two, no particular reason apart from ‘I’m in charge’. Munir pointed at the usage and revenue figures for Leisure Centres which have fallen badly. (15% below target.) Is usage “priced out” he wanted to know. Ms. Holkham said “I will respond” but if she did with anything relevant I failed to hear it. Councillor Malik proceeded with his second question which he said was a two part question. Chairman Read said that would make three questions but the argument was short lived. Munir as is usual carried on regardless launching into a speech about the council’s neglect of Sidcup and the “unethical” petitioning by Bexley council of Waitrose. Read told him off for making party debating points which was a bit rich coming from the leading proponent of the cheap political trick. Has Read never listened to himself at a council meeting?

Councillor Mike Slaughter said the Waitrose petition was not Bexley council’s but his and his wife’s. Funny then that it is given pride of place on the front page of Bexley council’s website.

Councillor Malik failed to notice the costs imposed on another leisure activity, viz. licking ice cream cones at Hall Place. The cost of Mr. Whippy’s licence has been jacked up by £5,000 a year. Now I know why the stuff is so stupidly expensive. Bexley council has its corporate tongue on your lolly.

After £152,561 a year Paul Moore again failed to answer a question, councillor Alan Deadman who was in particularly good form murmured “Get back to you. Get back to you.” His microphone made it all too clear. A moment or two earlier he had forgotten to switch it on and a BCMG member brought it to the attention of the Chairman. Both he and Alan Deadman responded with alacrity. Read is evidently not nearly as stupid as mayor Alan Downing who ensured his reputation for all time a couple of months ago.

Councillor Maxine Fothergill asked how many of the current 1,701 Bexley council employees were temporary staff. Paul Moore was caught out again as he dealt with FTEs. Full Time Equivalents. What did become clear is that there are just over 100 vacancies. Send your CV to the Civic Centre…

One thing I’ve always thought odd about Scrutiny Committees is that the relevant Cabinet Member is not asked to formally say anything but this meeting was different. Chairman Read seemed to be as surprised as I was. Councillor Colin Campbell addressed the meeting for five minutes. Campbell always does his True Blue Conservative Cost Cutting stuff well. He ranged over the savings made by sharing services with Bromley, Croydon and Kent County councils and was looking at sharing transport and building maintenance services. Transport he said was very expensive. How long one wonders before Bexley Cabs is bidding for the contract. Perhaps his most noteworthy point was that in the four years beyond 2014 the council will need to save another £20 million or so.

This being the Finance Committee a little time was spent on considering investments. Council Officer John Peters was every bit as boring as you would expect an accountant to be but unlike Maureen Holkham he had all the necessary answers at his fingertips. The council gives precedence to security over yield which is probably wise but why would anyone put 24 million into JP Morgan at 0·56% interest when you could take it down the Post Office and open a National Savings Account? Total investments currently stand at £118,400,000.

Read can be a total twit on Twitter and happy to make a false statement in a police station but as a chairman his silly grin was very nearly justified.


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