I’d been concerned for a while about tonight’s budget meeting of Bromley Council. Nearly 800 supporters of the Bromley Youth Music Trust had pledged on Facebook to come along and show their support and opposition to the Council’s proposal to remove funding form our excellent organisation with only 6 weeks’ notice.
I was concerned that, given the combination of heightened indignation and several hundred artistically temperamental teenagers, things might become explosive, especially since we were not the only ones petitioning against the cuts falling in our direction.
I arrived at the end of a set from the splendid Big Phat Brass and, as the musicians put away their instruments and, characteristically, headed down the pub (these were not the current students, I hasten to add, rather ex-pupils who came and joined in) we filed into the actual Council Chamber.
Earlier in the afternoon a statement had been circulated telling us that BYMT had been in talks with councillors and they’d reached a settlement. So our tone was no longer one of angry protest but rather of celebration and relief.
The actual Chamber was already too packed for us to enter but we were led to a different room where we could sit and listen to the proceedings relayed through speakers.
I’ve only been to a Council meeting once before, when we and our neighbours were opposing my neighbour’s request for planning permission. I found tonight’s process interesting, though plenty of others didn’t share this view.
In essence this was a meeting about the funding priorities of the Council in the coming year and which services they are to cut. They have to cut £69 million from their £200 million budget. I don’t know why they have to make these cuts, apart from the obvious political imperative, and I don’t understand how a Council that prides itself on keeping its Council Tax as one of the lowest in London has managed to run up such a deficit. Still.
First up was a petition against the sale of the Orpington Priory, but that decision has been deferred so there was no further action join that tonight.
Next, the decision to close Beckenham’s ancient public toilets. A lady from the campaign spoke eloquently about the need to keep public amenities like toilets, especially for people with disabilities; those with young children and elderly people on diuretics. Bromley is, apparently, the London Borough with the highest proportion of its population over 60. Sadly, though, none of the Councillors was going to fight for the £20,000 to keep the Beckenham loos open: apparently a combination of the Community Toilet scheme, with its 7 toilets, and the many local bars and cafes will make up the shortfall. One Councillor raised a note of caution that signage was important and that the Community Toilet scheme would have to be monitored to make sure it was actually effective. He said these things at least twice.
Then it was our turn and the Mayor read out a statement to the effect that the Council have agreed to supply £153,000 of funding for the current year, which is 50% of what they have given in the last year, together with the lease of the BYMT centre and its 12 classrooms. The Council will work together with the Trust to find and generate alternative sources of income to make up the shortfall from governmental and commercial organisations.
Well, we thought, it’s better than nothing. My feeling is that this has happened before and it will happen again. The nature of BYMT with its elite music is that its an expedient sitting target for populist politicians who simultaneously swan around in the VIP area at concerts and take the credit for the excellence of the children. It was easy to pick up the curled-lipped tone of the only response to my five letters to councillors. The Councillor in question, who has been vocal about all sorts of things in the past, suggested that pupils be taught in small group lessons rather than individually to save money, which just demonstrates the extent of his wilful ignorance.
I’d like to know why my other two ward councillors did not respond to my letter on an issue of local concern. It’s not, after all, as if they are there to represent me, is it? Oh wait…
I think it might be interesting to be a Councillor. I don’t think many people would vote for me though, not around these parts.