Whoever it was who designed the new council chamber did a very bad job. It’s
a featureless cavern with no sensible provision for public viewing. Last night’s
People Scrutiny Committee meeting allowed me to intimately scrutinise councillor
Alex Sawyer’s ears but it was close to impossible to actually see anyone
speaking. I was tempted to take a picture of the Sawyer lugs but as he is a
decent sort of bloke by Bexley Tory standards I exercised some restraint. With 40
councillors and invited guests around the table the four members of the public
present - it soon reduced to two - were relegated to an alcove behind the loudspeakers. Not good.
About half of our councillors speak up confidently and present few aural problems, but there are rather a lot of mumblers. Mick Barnbrook and Elwyn Bryant have given up on attending scrutiny meetings because they don’t hear enough to make it worthwhile.
Councillor James Hunt takes a relaxed view of chairmanship which is no bad thing. He will chivvy speakers along when necessary but, last night at least, was flexible when speakers strayed a little from the main subject. Neither is he critical of comments instead of questions and once allowed himself to send a message to his wife via the webcast. But the downside is a near three hour meeting. It’s impossible to report every aspect of it, so the following is just the bits that captured my attention.
Councillor Alan Downing returned to his theme of why Bexley Primary Schools don’t seem to be pushing pupils towards passing the Eleven Plus. A high proportion of Grammar School places are still taken by out of borough children.
One of the council officers - it’s impossible to say who, no name plates were visible from my position - attempted to prove councillor Downing wrong using one of those grammar schoolboy formulae that I have long since forgotten that aims to prove that one equals two. (A division by zero came into it somewhere.)
Another councillor who consistently speaks up - in every sense of the word, he doesn’t need a microphone - for residents’ educational needs is councillor Chris Beazley (UKIP) who, quoting information provided by Bexley council, complained that one of his ward residents lost a grammar school place because a child from Tottenham scored a point or two higher in the 11+ examination. Desmond Deehan, the headteacher at Townley Grammar school slapped him down by saying he had no pupils from Tottenham. He didn’t have to do it as rudely as he did surely? He was addressing a councillor not a recalcitrant teenager.
Councillor Sharon Massey was also concerned about the lack of interest in the 11+ and to my mind spoke a lot of good sense when saying that learning about tests and how to manage and pass them was a worthwhile life skill. Bexley schools aren’t doing that.
My own prejudice that school teachers are too often motivated by left wing claptrap
was amply confirmed by the teacher who spoke against educational choice.
Chief Superintendent Peter Ayling is away again so once more we were treated to the Assistant Borough Commander, Nicola Duffy, gabbling away at high speed, running out of breath and trailing off into near inaudibility. There was very little about Romanians this time around.
Apart from a reference to the policeman shot in the hand a week ago in Welling and the appalling murder in Thamesmead on Tuesday she managed to fill eight minutes with not a lot.
The medical team were more interesting and obviously pleased with themselves for opening the new Urgent Care Centre at Erith Hospital at the beginning of this month. Their efforts (there's been a UCC in Sidcup for some while) have resulted in local A&E attendances bucking the national trend and actually falling, not that Queen Elzabeth Hospital’s A&E facility is out of trouble yet as they readily admitted.
The chairman asked the medics how well they were prepared for Ebola and as luck would have it a lady (Joy Ellery) from Lewisham Hospital had invited herself to the meeting and you may remember Lewisham Hospital had an Ebola scare last week.
This is what she said about it but basically the national newspapers, the Sun in particular, made a mountain out of a molehill.
To summarise; a man from Sierra Leone had a temperature just half a degree up from normal.
He was put in an isolation ward and he and the staff were clad in plastic, masks
gloves etc. and he was allowed a single plastic encased visitor because he had been living with
that person anyway and he was classed low risk. He stayed in his room and within a few hours his tests
came back negative just as the medical staff were expecting. Storm in a teacup.
In what I am almost certain must have been a staged event, councillor Peter Craske asked about the Belvedere Splash Park which is somewhat removed from ‘People’ but cabinet member Sawyer volunteered to answer Craske’s question and the elasticated chairman was happy to allow it.
Councillor Sawyer just happened to have all the Splash Park documentation in front of him which was a huge stroke of luck don’t you think, and was therefore able to go into considerable detail as to why the Splash Park is in trouble. In essence, the filtration system is not up to the job and bacterial infection has been hard to control. At times low level “e.coli and other nasties” have been detected and the council spent £47,000 on disinfectant this year to ensure that there was no danger to the public. Such problems were responsible for most of the park closures and fixing them properly would cost between £350,000 and half a million.
The Conservatives were keen to blame Labour for the unserviceable filtration systems but it would have been council officers who advised them. If the system is no good after only eight years perhaps the manufacturers are culpable.
Whilst not doubting that councillor Sawyer is a loyal part of Teresa O’Neill’s inner circle, his is not a name that I associate with Bexley council’s lie machine and I think it is reasonable to assume that there are genuine problems at the splash park. Alex Sawyer cannot see how it can be preserved given the parlous state of Bexley’s finances but is willing to listen to any man with a plan. I don’t see the point of replacing the splash park with yet another playground as there is already a large well equipped one on the other side of the road.
The Libraries Report was discussed and councillor Joe Ferreira expressed his concerns but may have failed to fully account for the changing nature of the library service. Surely it has to move with the times?
The council’s report refers to e-book readers, low cost books from Amazon, the influence of the internet and the fact that most people these days have their own computer all of which tend to reduce library use and it’s hard to argue otherwise. Councillor Downing thought the Library Report was “a well thought out piece of paper” and not for the first time last night I found myself agreeing with him though why it is only private enterprise that can run a decent coffee bar at a profit I have never been quite sure.
With Libraries out of the way there were only five out of 14 agenda items remaining but the lateness of the hour has a miraculous effect on councillors’ willingness to ask questions so we got through the lot in a mere six minutes.
A subject that got a passing mention was the Adoption and Fostering Services. I didn’t listen too intently because I was reading the much greater detail revealed by the Agenda and trying to get my head around the figures.
How is it for example that the People committee is told this…
…but only a day earlier, Cabinet said something different?
The difference is that the first statement refers to last year and the second to the first half of this one but the target looks like being well missed and Bexley’s children’s care services will still be in big trouble.