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News and Comment March 2012

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1 March - Another council meeting

There was another council meeting last night, only a week after the last one, maybe a contributory factor in eight councillors not bothering to show up. The main purpose was to discuss the budget. The meeting began as usual with prayers, which I mention only because of the recent controversy, but careful listening confirmed they are specifically Christian prayers and not some politically correct fence sitting exercise. Mayor Sams felt the need to yet again trot out his message about no form of recording being permitted. “To protect the public” he said. Quite how an audio recording could harm the public at a meeting where the public is not allowed to speak is never explained. Some lies are harder to explain than others.

Leader Teresa O’Neill kicked off by referring to “significant cuts in government funding” and claiming that the service cuts had “the overwhelming support of residents” I think the question was along the lines of “should we keep the council tax as low as possible”. She said the council was currently on track with its savings but conceded the more difficult targets still lie ahead. Conscious that the increased parking charges are not popular she said the current charges were to be frozen for three years. That may well make the deal more palatable but then she went and spoilt it by claiming that Bexley had more parking places than any other nearby borough. She’s never been to Bromley presumably. It doesn’t really matter whether Bexley has more or fewer than Bromley, what matters is that we have a council leader who struggles to speak without straying from the truth. Deputy leader Campbell followed with much the same message and reminded everyone that Boris Johnson had reduced his precept and councillors’ allowances were frozen for three years too.

Leader O’Neill took up the reins again and told us that Bexley had been given the lowest public health allocation in London but that Bexley had “the lowest council tax in the Outer London Rim”. I don’t know how that Rim is defined but I do know that Barnet, Bromley, Enfield, Hillingdon, Merton and Redbridge are all on the outer edge of London and all have lower taxes than Bexley. The average of one fib every time Teresa O’Neill stands up seems to have been successfully maintained. Her deputy, Colin Campbell, then attempted to cheer everyone up with the forecast that another £20 million will have to be found after 2014 and the reserves weren’t good. £5 million when the Conservatives came into office and only £11 million now he said, adding, “in simplistic terms that is enough for about ten days”. There is another £3·8m. to cover uninsured losses. Bexley council doesn’t insure against everything which is probably a good thing. Why let the insurance companies grow fat?

Councillor Maxine Fothergill breathlessly read from a long prepared script, which in essence said “Didn’t we do well?” ”We listened” and “We made no significant reductions in services” were the most quotable quotes. Councillor Hunt made a similar address but more succinctly.

Meanwhile councillor Deadman (Labour) was chafing at the bit attempting to introduce an amendment to the budget. The Conservatives had achieved an underspend of £400,000 which councillor Campbell had quite rightly said wasn’t going to be blown on end of financial year froth. Councillor Deadman didn’t want it to go into reserves but instead give a 1% pay rise to staff earning less than £30,000 a year. The idea didn’t go down too well among the Tories. The amendment, seconded by councillor Munir Malik, was justified on the grounds that most employees live in the borough and they would spend their £270k. locally thereby boosting the economy. I wasn't convinced. For a start around a third of the money would go straight back to central government in the form of income tax and N.I. contributions which doesn’t benefit the borough one iota and what is left would be the equivalent of every adult in Bexley making one more visit to a pound shop each year, or maybe a dozen of them buying a new car. Either way it is not going to boost the local economy in any measurable way.

Councillor Deadman told us that everyone was struggling with Bexley’s across the board increased charges and staff should be shielded against that. What about the residents at large someone should have shouted, but no one did. Councillor Malik said that all the present financial woes are due to the Con/Dem government and that Quantative Easing should have been directed at families and not banks. I’m no fan of the present shower in Downing Street, but I do have a memory that extends back before May 2010. Maybe Munir hasn’t. The amendment roused the occasional cheer from the public gallery but not from me.

A second part of the Labour group’s amendment was that parking should be free for the first hour to encourage trade. Those who were at Boris Johnson’s roadshow last July might have expected leader O’Neill to back that idea as she was in favour of it (albeit only 15 minutes free) while fielding questions with Boris listening, but it was not to be. Every Tory was against it despite one of Bexley’s oldest shops (Nuxley Toys) announcing closure last week because of parking charges. In making his address, councillor Malik fell foul of the petty minded mayor again. As well as having a wooden hammer to bang, the mayor has a toy traffic light. Green : you may speak. Amber : you must wrap up. Red : sit down and shut up. Poor old Munir overran the red light by five or six seconds giving mayor Sams an opportunity to let everyone know who is in charge.

Councillor Gareth Bacon evidently had the same thoughts as I did. “£270k. won’t rejuvenate the economy” he said as he dished out the frightening statistics of just how far the country has travelled along Queer Street.

Councillor Colin Tandy rose to his feet to say that just because there was an underspend it didn’t have to be spent. “It explains why Labour governments always fail” he said. Councillor Tandy must be about the same age as me, I too have seen them all fail; from Wilson in 1964 onwards. On the other hand leaving out the word Labour would not change the truthfulness of Tandy’s statement. He strayed from reality when he said Bexley’s car parks are cheapest, “there is no doubt about that”. Craske’s indoctrination runs very deep.

Councillor Brenda Langstead (Labour) complained about Teresa O’Neill’s comment at the last meeting that the free Christmas Eve parking was paid for by strikers. She indicated it was disrespectful and showed O’Neill’s true colours. It probably does. She also said that parking revenue had gone down and the statement that front line services have not been affected is nonsense. A lot of what leader O’Neill claims is nonsense, just look at the news page of Bexley Conservative’s website.

Councillor Mike Slaughter retaliated by saying car parking revenue is not down - he has a different version of the accounts to everyone else - and got in a dig about Labour’s 40% council tax increase. No explanation of why the Tories didn’t give it back. On the best estimates the recent freezes mean a 12% reduction given the inflation rate. Where has the other 28% gone?

Councillor Perrior said the Labour amendment was “pathetic” and revealed for the first time that I remember that she is a business woman and not an impoverished single mum as you might believe if you read her letter to the Bexley Chronicle. A 1% increase was “patronising and not worth having”. All very well to say that when you are not on the breadline. “The staff appreciate what we are doing” or so she said anyway.

Councillor Don Massey made cringeworthy patronising remarks about councillors Deadman and Malik with some reference, which I didn’t quite understand, to the Olive Oil and Pop-Eye of politics. “You don’t have a clue do you?” he said to them.

Councillor Ball (Labour leader) said that if 1% is insulting what is 0%? “£3·50 a week is not an insult to low paid families.”

Councillor Seán Newman (Labour) picked up on the comment about front line services not being cut by referring to the safer neighbourhood teams and the loss of (three I think he said) libraries. He was of course referring to mobile libraries all of which are gone. Bexley council had sneaked through £7·2 million of stealth taxes and was going to charge £7 a head to visit Sidcup Place.

Leader Teresa O’Neill said the travelling libraries were not needed. Their biggest customer was schools and none wanted to pay for them. So they had to go. Does Teresa really believe that not being able to afford them is the same as not needing them? It’s not exactly a lie but it is disingenuous to say the least.

After that a vote was taken. The Labour amendment was thrown out and the Conservative proposal was accepted, voting in both cases being absolutely along party lines. Maybe we could do with some independents on Bexley council, as it is, meetings and debates could be dispensed with and spare us the spectacle of Conservative councillors being rude to Labour ones. Just because their economics may be questionable doesn’t excuse the derision.

The meeting wasn’t quite over at the vote but I had an appointment elsewhere at 21:30 so I headed for the exit leaving a public audience of (I think) four, not counting the council officials that sit among them.


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