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News and Comment October 2012

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5 October (Part 2) - Finance Committee meeting

Last night’s meeting was chaired  by councillor Philip Read who once again showed that he is a much better meeting chairman than he is a business man. He asked members to be sure to use their microphones and welcomed me to the meeting. I say “me” because I was the only member of the public present. Possibly councillors Stefano Borella, Alan Deadman and Mike Slaughter might hold a different opinion of Read’s chairmanship skills as they were all slapped down for posing agenda based questions which Read said fell outside his committee’s remit.

Teresa O'Neill's false claimCouncillor Borella lost no time in referring to the “appalling” OFSTED report and this was echoed by a number of voices, the chairman’s included. It was revealed that the council has allocated £1 million to put things right and councillor Mike Slaughter wanted to know “what are we doing to make sure we are not caught out again”. Director Paul Moore confirmed that “we all feel uncomfortable about [the] OFSTED [failure]” and the Director of Finance, Mike Ellsmore, said the money was coming from a strategic reserve. Councillor Slaughter did not get a clear answer to his question but there is to be a report to Cabinet at its meeting on 16th October.

One might wonder what council leader Teresa O’Neill was doing telling the electorate in her recent publication that “Bexley’s services continue to be praised as excellent or outstanding”. If you are, wonder no more. She was lying again.

There is a survey about what people think of Bexley council going on at present. Councillor Colin Tandy said “what people think of the council is among the most important things”. He is right, it may see him out of office. Mrs. Maureen Holkham (Deputy Director, Corporate Policy) said the survey was aiming to get between 1,000 and 2,000 responses. So far it was a little short of 1,000.

Progress towards achievement of this year’s Strategy 2014 budget savings was said to be 16% “completed” and 42% “going well”.

Councillor Borella asked if the £2,614,000 of savings to come from the “Modernisation of Learning Disability Services” wasn’t too ambitious. “Staff terms and conditions were being cut by 40%” he said. “Those people will not be able to spend in local shops and a downward spiral would begin.” The implication was that it would come back to bite the council.

Councillor Campbell said the problem was with the contractor, MCCH. They were uncompetitive due to their own mismanagement and the staff cuts were their fault.

The subject moved on to council staffing levels and councillor Steven Hall asked how many new job appointments were from external recruits. The officers did not know. Councillor Deadman said he understood that negotiations with other nearby authorities to share some services had failed that very afternoon. Director Paul Moore confirmed that the proposed share with Bromley was now “on hold and probably not going to move forward”.

The cabinet member for Finance then gave his report. I know from my postbag that councillor Campbell is deeply unpopular in Bexley but he does know how to rise to the occasion at a meeting, if, I suppose I should add, your politics tend to the right.

The Woolwich/Tesco arrangements are all on schedule and likely to be finally wrapped up next month. 240 “odd” school children came out of nowhere in August alone putting further strain on various budgets. Business rate arrangements are changing but the government always wants to nick them and give Bexley a bad deal. No one ever pays backs crisis loans and the Thames Innovation Centre is a beacon of excellence. “72% occupancy despite the recession.” “Complaints handling in some departments remains extremely patchy” and “I'm only wearing a tie this evening because I have had to come direct from another meeting”.

Council Tax support is being reduced from next April; every council has to draw up its own scheme. Bexley says everyone will have to pay at least 15% of the council tax instead of nothing in some cases under the present arrangements. The change will be phased in over three years 5% at a time. They also proposed reducing any back dating of relief from six months to one. Teresa Pearce MP joined others in saying this was a bit draconian and a compromise three months has been adopted.

Bexley council’s complaints and FOI answering is as councillor Campbell said “patchy” and their procedures are to get a top to toe make-over headed by Suzanne Lloyd who is new to the job. Several councillors asked questions about numbers to which the answer to all but one of them was the delightfully vague “about 50%” which may or may not have been coincidental. For example “about 50% [of FOIs] came from Bexley residents, a small number from bloggers and the rest from commercial organisations”. Bloggers? Really? Those I know of locally make hardly any.

Councillor Steven Hall provoked an answer which wasn’t 50. It was said that only 80% of FOIs are answered within the statutory time limits and “this must rise to 95%”.

The only divergence from what was a well conducted meeting was in agenda item 10. ‘Impact of the Economic Downturn’. The Labour councillors wanted to make the point that “it was caused by the ConDems” to which councillor Colin Tandy replied “No, it was all caused by your lot”. Chairman Read wisely soon put the lid on that argument and we went on to hear that compared to surrounding areas Bexley is not doing too badly.

Bexley websiteThe final subject and to me the most interesting was a preview of Bexley council’s new website. Teresa O’Neill may go on about how wonderful the current one is but I was pleased to note that some councillors agree with me. The word “appalling” was used to describe some aspects. The responsible council officer gave a more technical critique which amounted to the same thing. Great chunks of unwanted white space and far too much scrolling. The new design will put Bexley among the better London borough sites while at present I am tempted to say it is the worst. It certainly has the ugliest front page.

The first phase will go live early next year with all the common services available via the redesigned web interface and a second phase will bring other abominations like Public Access into the fold. At long last the latter will be given a sensible name.

During this discussion councillor Howard Marriner asked about the council’s use of Twitter. “How many followers does the council have?” True to form Mrs. Holkham didn’t know. A more quick witted Deputy Director might have suggested he go to and read the number (currently) 822. Unfortunately both Howard and Mike Slaughter had earlier expressed a certain amount of reluctance to use a computer.

Precisely two hours after he started, councillor Philip Read wound up the meeting.


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