Review of the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee on 2nd February, and Cabinet meeting on 14th February.
The Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee was about the opposition being given the chance to review and make suggestions about what the current administration has put together to spend our money. The subsequent Cabinet meeting was the portfolio holders within the administration ratifying any changes they wished to make.
I have reviewed both meetings in this article, more because I didn’t have time to publish the Policy and Resources meeting article before watching the cabinet meeting than anything else!
As it happens, it makes for a more interesting read, as the decisions that were subsequently changed in the Cabinet meeting can be contrasted against what was originally in the budget.
Discussing council budgets severely underplays what is really going on. Our leaders are discussing where the money you gave them is going to be spent and what they intend to take out of your hard-earned pay.
Remember, it is your money - not theirs. When you see your payslip and you see what’s left after tax, don’t think it was never your money. It was always your money, but you have been involuntarily asked to put it into a pot for it to be shared around.
Personally, I am pro the pot. I just cannot stand seeing my money frittered away.
The Two Meetings
In the P&R meeting, Councillors seem to have lost their free parking, but officers still got it for free. Why have officers escaped the parking cull? Before you panic, Cabinet, a few days later, confirmed councillors will get free parking!
I don’t have an issue with this necessarily depending on the detail. If it is purely, 100%, work-related then fine. Other than that, both officers and councillors should pay their fair share.
In the P&R meeting, when the leader was asked for examples of areas of the budget that were non-essential the answer, after fumbling about for minutes on end, was to say everything. This, of course, does not make sense because all the care services would surely not be cut?
On to the great saga of the day - street lighting. It turns out they have dimmed the lights since around 2014 or 2015. It was hard to confirm via the meeting, but no one knew - not a councillor, not a council officer. Someone knew, but no one remembers.
The reason this is relevant is because this administration was citing £25K worth of saving by dimming the lights, which being that it is part of the current debate for the budget, should already have been debated and agreed upon in budget meetings around 2014/15.
It wasn’t, but the opposition seemed to be pursuing this anomaly well, so it will be interesting to hear what comes out of any investigation that takes place - if it does, which I doubt.
The portfolio holder doesn’t remember, and undemocratically said it doesn’t matter because ultimately we have saved a fortune and it is better for the environment. Whether he is right or wrong, that does not seem consistent with how the system works!
There has been no risk assessment for the safety of residents, but his answer was there haven’t been any problems. Slightly flippant, given the difficulties in determining whether the level of lighting was a direct or indirect cause of a criminal act.
When the portfolio holder was asked whether he will restore the lights to 100%, his answer was to say that if that is what the opposition wishes to do then by all means recommend where the compensatory money will be found. In other words, the lights will remain dimmed!
According to one of the portfolio holders, the dimming is as follows:
Sunset to 12am 100%
Midnight to 2am 75%
30% from 2am to 5am
5am to sunrise 100%
In the Cabinet meeting, it was confirmed, triumphantly, that the lights would remain as they were. Still dimmed, but it could have been so much worse had it not been for the heroics of some of the councillors that rode their horses into battle!
The conclusion: always carry a torch.
The next budget charge is one I truly dislike and cannot believe this is happening.
The council will be charging for parking at Jones Memorial, Southchurch Park, Chalkwell Park, Priory park, Belfairs, Big Gunners and more. They have not decided if the first hour or two are free, but pretend negotiations between administration politicians have been taking place that make it seem like there is a victory by extending the free parking by an hour or so.
To add comedy to the situation, there will be a public consultation asking residents whether they want this.
I know they know that we know no one will vote for this, so I cannot understand why they would do this. My gut says the question will be worded something like: would you prefer 1 hour, 2 hours or 3 hours of free parking in parks? No explanation that there is currently no charge, and some empty lines about how beneficial it will be to local people because fewer people will visit the park, which means more enjoyment for local people to spend time with family and friends in an environmentally friendly environment.
I say be bold, if you going to make heinous decisions just go for it. I look forward to filling in the survey.
There will now be a 10-pence ‘convenience’ fee for people that use the Mobon app.
Now, I detest the app, however, those that use it will find every top-up charged. The opposition making the point that the council have been pushing residents to use it - and now they provide a disincentive to do that. Incidentally, the Portfolio holder doesn’t know if there is a convenience fee for the Southend pass.
What the portfolio holder did confirm in Cabinet was that it would be going up from £8.50 per month to £10.
It’s ok, I’ve done the math:
£8.50 x 12 months = £102
£10 x 12 months - £120
£120 - £102 = £18
£18 as a percentage of £102 = 17.65%
This is inflation-busting. And I doubted their ambition.
There has now been a reduction in the capital programme for the repair of pavements and roads, from £10m to £6m. This was a key part of their previous manifesto, and though I respect the reasons, I really believe there needs to be more accountability with what is said.
I distinctly remember this administration pointing out the neglect of the previous one in regard to our roads and pavements - in fact, it was one of their main pledges. Never mind, few remember, so what does it matter? Bizarrely, a councillor in the cabinet meeting said the potholes in Southend are so low that residents are having to complain about potholes in Rayleigh! Yes, I couldn’t make sense of it either!
There will be changes to the bus shelter in Southend City Centre. It was a little unclear what they would be, but there are costs to be saved, so presumably, something is being cut.
The council are exploring charging for the privilege of making water (taking a p**s), and are talking to a company who will take care of this for us. We are not yet sure whether this is for every toilet, but I would like to make a prediction: ….it will be...at some point.
Onto grass cutting. The council have proposed to start a ‘re-wilding’ process to improve biodiversity. Translation: they will only cut the grass once in the year to save £100K.
The portfolio holder confirmed in the cabinet meetings that rents will go up, stating “Any increase in rents and service charges will be unwelcome to some”. He did not say by how much, but 10% seems to be the magic figure ‘in line with inflation’. I wonder if everything will go down when inflation dips back to 2%?
The portfolio holder for housing also confirmed that Swan and Sanctuary Housing have merged or acquired one another (?), so Queensway should be back on. Given the complete financial mess of the developers behind this, I hope that Southend Council do not end up footing any of the £575m bill if anything goes wrong.
So, all in all, what has Southend got to look forward to?
4.99% increase in council tax, 10% increase in council fees and charges, an undisclosed (as yet) increase in rents, 10% increase in seafront parking charges, charges from 6pm to 9pm, parking charges introduced in our parks, dimmed street lights, one trim per year of our grass verges, more potholes and cracked pavements and paying to pee.
As hesitant as I am to remind you, this is the administration that called a 'Cost of Living Emergency' only last year. If this was the result, I shudder to think what we were in for!
The question would be, ok, well, what would you do?
My answer would be none of this.
A side-point about honesty
Openness and transparency are all we want. Unfortunately, portfolio holders denied that this budget was what they intended to do. For over 4 hours the denials were repeated. Finally, the opposition leader asked the Council Officer responsible for helping put together the budget, who immediately confirmed it would indeed be the intention of this administration to take it forward.
The officer seemed unperturbed by this admission, to the point that you wondered what all the fuss was about. But his job is not on the line. He is the administrator, not the perpetrator. He gets paid regardless and will likely be in the job long beyond the politicians.
Maybe that is part of the problem. Either he is making the suggestions and the councillors are agreeing blindly - which seems likely given how little they seemed to know about their own budget - or he is letting them hang themselves.
Finally, when a portfolio holder states in the cabinet meeting “what’s not to like about this budget”?, I would like to refer to the classic episode of Friends where Rachel attempts to make Shepherd's pie...
In "The One Where Ross Got High," thanks to a cookbook mix-up, Rachel accidentally prepares a meat trifle as a Thanksgiving dessert. It's made of layers of ladyfingers, custard, raspberries, beef sautéed with peas and onions, bananas, and whipped cream. And it only has one layer of jam.
To politely get out of eating the dessert, Chandler goes to the balcony, the Gellers, to their daughter's room, and Monica to the bathroom. Ross says the trifle tastes like feet, but Joey loves every layer of it. "What’s Not To Like? Custard? Good! Jam? Good! Meat? Goooooood!”
For their sake, let's hope Southend residents have the political equivalent of Joey's palate who take delight in swallowing what others would throw up!