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News and Comment March 2012

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22 March (Part 3) - Crime and Disorder at Bexley Civic Centre

The Crime and Disorder Committee met last night chaired by councillor Alan Downing. There were eight people there apart from councillors, staff and guest speakers, and two of them were the bouncers hired in by Bexley council to keep the other six in check. The guests were two young people from the Youth Council and the Borough Commanders of both Fire and Police, although CS Stringer had fielded his new deputy, CI Tony Gowen. As is the norm with Downing’s meetings the guests were not welcomed, not even the young people to whom you may have thought he would want to set a good example of polite and civil behaviour. Probably he does not know what that is as will be confirmed if you read to the end of this report.

For the public, Agendas had been supplied, just three copies and in black and white only. The councillors’ copies were in colour and the monochrome made nonsense of some of the graphs. All part of the ‘keep the public in the dark’ policy of Bexley council no doubt.

The meeting lasted some 160 minutes so it is not possible to report it in enormous detail and the following is highlights only.

The first insight into councillors’ states of mind came from Don Massey. In connection with achievements and targets he asked whether a reducing number of young people receiving custodial sentences was a good thing or a bad thing. The council officer, Linda Tottman, said it was a good thing. Massey told her he thought she was wrong. CI Tony Gowen for Bexleyheath police said it was definitely a good thing, “the fewer the better”, he said. Massey said he didn’t agree. I suppose that is to be expected from a Bexley Magistrate but worrying that the police and Massey are pulling in different directions. In Massey’s own words, “I may be thick”. Incidentally, every “Key Indicator” in the Agenda had been missed.

Councillor Philip Read asked for an explanation of some of the figures provided by Ms. Tottman, Bexley’s Deputy Director of Youth and Inclusion. “Did the 0·86 and 0·69 targets for reoffending and custody mean percentages?”, he asked. “No” said Tottman, “they are not percentages” and proceeded to explain why they were not. After the third failed attempt she gave up. “I’ll tell you what, I’ll give you an example.” She then gave two figures and said that one was divided into the other and it came to the decimal number in the targets table. I took a note of the numbers and a quick division showed that the 0·69 was indeed representing 69%. Did Tottman have a sick note when percentages were taught at her school? How is it that we are paying Deputy Director salaries to someone who doesn’t know anything about percentages? Should an Antonia Ainge style question be asked?

Tottman failed to answer any of the following questions either and eventually councillor Chris Ball was moved to say “Confidence in the data has dipped. If we don’t quite get what we are looking for…” at this point his delivery raced ahead of my scribbling skills but I think he went on to say “they aren’t very useful”. Or maybe Tottman isn’t very useful - I’m not sure. Good point though.

Priti PatelCouncillor Alex Sawyer asked several questions that revealed him to be a good Conservative. That is intended to be a compliment but given the calamity that the party is under Cameron some may not think so. But Alex remains the sort of Conservative politician one might wish for. His questions revealed a no nonsense approach to drug abusing benefit claimants and their parents and a little later on he had his say on the advisability of funding local groups who should be attempting to fund themselves. It is perhaps worth noting that Linda Tottman was unable to answer Mr. Sawyer’s drug related question. It is probably not worth noting that one of my colleagues can’t stop himself from ‘admiring’ Mrs. Sawyer.

The highlight of the evening is usually FIre Commander Cyril O’Brien’s report and last night was no exception. Generally Bexley’s fire problems are few. We have some arsonists with a fondness for rubbish bins but the worst of them was recently caught. A man, not a youth, from outside the borough with a grudge against Bexley. With Bexley’s reputation world-wide that could have been almost anyone. I suppose in view of the wild imaginations, low intellect and spiteful nature of council leader Teresa O’Neill and Chief Executive Will Tuckley, I must add that I strongly disapprove of arson.

Cyril O'BrienCouncillors Philip Read and John Wilkinson were both interested in ease of access to premises by fire appliances; they knew of some places inaccessible due to inconsiderate parking. What does the Fire Service do in such circumstances? Commander O’Brien looked around furtively to check that Bexley’s rule on no recording was being observed and said… Well maybe I shouldn’t repeat what he said but I’ll leave you with the thought that his appliances are a lot bigger and heavier than a private car and if lives are at risk he would do what every reader would want him to do.

Tony Gowen the police officer present didn’t have much to do but his presence was invaluable because after chairman Alan Downing had told everyone that domestic violence was increasing at a worrying rate. CI Gowen had to chip in and tell him it is actually going down.

There has recently been a Crime Survey of residents in Bexley in which 1,141 people took part. The odd 1 was me but I took the precaution of entering a false post code. The responsible council officer was Diane Krauss (it’s what it sounded like, there was no name plate) and she had commendably managed to increase the participation level four fold over the previous survey. There was very little talk of what residents’ concerns were, dog fouling got a mention, but there was a long discussion on how participation levels can be improved further. It’s typical Bexley council; interested in headline eye catching figures and hitting arbitrary targets but not so keen on tackling people’s real concerns.

David Bryce-Smith, Bexley’s Deputy Director (Development, Housing and Community Safety) was asked if there had been any dialogue with respondents but reminded councillor Read that it was a confidential survey. Councillor Kerry Allon asked Linda Tottman if the number at the foot of Page 58 of the Agenda was to be added to the number on Page 59 to get the true result or whether one superseded the other. Tottman didn’t know. Sorry, Tottman not being able to tot up may be getting a trifle repetitive so I’ll draw things to a conclusion.

Councillor Ball was interested in any measures in place for recording unrecorded crime which sounds like a bit of an impossibility, though I accept it is important to know. CI Gowen ran through a list of initiatives he was implementing. CI Gowen was also questioned on the fact only 6% of burglaries resulted in arrest. He conceded it was a weakness and said that the crooks are getting to be very aware of forensics and how to circumvent it.

I have remarked before how difficult it can be to hear from the public area of the council chamber and how some people are unable to speak into the microphone but last night things were worse. Councillor Peter Craske was not activating his microphone at all and mumbling in his usual way. He calls himself a Communications Manager and should presumably know better, but last night he may just have been forgetful. About a third of the way through the meeting an elderly gent in the audience, about my age I would think, asked councillor Craske if he would kindly switch on his microphone. He ignored him. The man repeated his request to chairman Alan Downing explaining that he was very deaf. I do not recall seeing an induction loop sign in the chamber.

Councillor Alan DowningDowning said that “if you have personal problems then they are your problem” and proceeded to say that “councillor Craske could choose whether to put his microphone on or not”. The old man sat down. Craske must have had second thoughts about the wisdom of insulting behaviour towards those disabled by deafness because subsequently he switched his microphone on - not that he ever remembered to speak into it or raise his voice above the usual Craske mumble.

As I went to leave the meeting soon after 10 p.m. I noticed the man with a hearing problem approach chairman Downing and as far as I could ascertain he was seeking an apology from Downing. Do you think he got one? “The meeting is over” shouted Downing and refused to apologise. The man said that his deafness was severe and it had been confirmed by his clinician. I wish I had had Olly’s video camera for the next bit because Downing then accused the old fellow of pointing his finger at Craske and all the while Downing was vigorously jabbing his pen toward his victim with its end within inches of his eye. It was really most comical as well as unedifying. I shall be looking out for a man with both a trumpet and a white stick at the next meeting. It is unbelievable that a Bexley councillor should refuse to direct the use of microphones and then take delight in taunting a man about his affliction as he did at the end of the meeting. Maybe not so unbelievable in Bexley though.

All of this took place before a chorus of jeering councillors, not all of them of course, there must be a few decent ones there, but maybe not a lot. I left as CI Gowen gently shepherded the man away with his arm around his waist before Downing had a chance to humiliate him further. I guess any decent person would have done the same.

I hurried out to the bus stop but next away was CI Gowen almost sprinting back to his office, but not without time for a friendly word for a minute or two. Maybe, just maybe, Bexleyheath’s police are beginning to see exactly why Bexley council is widely seen as undemocratic and corrupt.


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