Executive Member Portfolio Update (Agenda Item 6)
Paul Claussen, Executive Member for Planning & Environmental Services, has been invited to attend the meeting to update Members on key ongoing issues and policies within his portfolio and to answer any questions.
Mr Claussen, Executive Member for Planning and Environmental Services had been invited to update the Commission on ongoing issues within his portfolio. He advised Members that there was a lot going on and that several areas were under review involving staff at risk, so he would not go into those areas in detail. Both HR and Unison were involved.
This was one area under review. The aim was to share management at Principal Officer and Team Leader level whist still retaining local knowledge. IT would be shared and mobile working would be implemented across both authorities to provide consistency. The Business Development Manager and the Business Improvement Team were undertaking a full business process review. An IT ‘pipe’ would link both authorities and would be capable of expansion if necessary. A Project Board and Project Group had been set up to progress the review and it was expected to be completed by 1st April 2012.
Environmental Services was working with other departments and the Immigration authorities with regard to rough sleepers. They had also teamed up with Trading Standards to address under 18s using sun beds.
The dog and pest contracts had both been re-let and were operating well. The RSPCA had awarded the Council a ‘Gold Footprint’ award for its work with stray dogs. There was also a micro-chipping service and dog training courses which were very popular and over-subscribed.
Food Hygiene courses were also proving popular and might become commercial.
The ‘Scores on the Doors’ project had been very successful, with over 1200 businesses receiving scores of between 3 and 5. Only 5% of businesses required improvement. However, some businesses were requesting re-visits to try and improve their scores.
The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill would bring changes to regulated entertainment licensing. The implications on workload were not yet known as more details were awaited. The situation was being closely monitored.
Due to shared services, the Leaders of both Councils wanted to align Planning and Economic Development, therefore, the Policy side of planning and the Capita contract now fell within the Assets and Strategic Development Portfolio and Mr Kiddle-Morris had joined Mr Claussen and the Chairman of the Planning Committee on the Contract Monitoring Board.
The main criteria for outsourcing the Planning department had been to make savings and by the end of 2011 the contract would be on target to reach contractual savings of over £400,000.
Capita continued to meet all targets. There had been a problem with the Enforcement target but that had been addressed. However, the targets originated from the old BVPIs (Best Value Performance Indicators) which used to be linked to receipt of the Planning Delivery Grant. Those targets no longer attracted a grant and negotiations had commenced to review the targets to address issues such as customer access.
The Planning Manager explained that they wanted targets to be customer focused. They would look at how the processes worked and aim to improve consultation and access and make the system as transparent as possible. The website was one area where time would be invested to make accessing information easier. The intention was to focus on two new customer delivery standards: customer access and quality of decision.
The Executive Member advised that they hoped to find a solution to telephony problems and to bring the IT platform up to the required level. He asked the Commission for the opportunity to return in six months to provide an update on the progress made.
The Chairman suggested that Mr Claussen’s update on housing should be provided in conjunction with the next item on the agenda. He therefore invited questions on what had been heard so far.
(The Chairman also apologised at this point for not welcoming Mr Jermy as the new Vice-Chairman at the start of the meeting.)
Mr Gilbert asked about the dog warden service and whether it included taking action against fouling on footpaths. Mr Claussen was not sure if that was part of the dog warden’s contract. He promised to find out.
Mr Bambridge was glad that planning issues were being addressed. He thought it was important to let applicant’s know when they could expect a decision. He asked if the changes would affect the timescale in which the contract was expected to start ‘earning’ money.
Mr Claussen advised that the contract was not due to start earning additional money until 2012/13, although that issue was already discussed at Contract Monitoring meetings and some work from other authorities was already being undertaken. He had accompanied the Deputy Chief Executive to a meeting of the Planning Advisory Service in Leeds. They were looking at alternative ways for authorities to save money and Mr Claussen thought that cuts in staffing levels at other authorities might lead to work opportunities in future.
With regard to the ‘Scores on the Doors’ project, Mr Sharpe asked if the Council would be charging for the re-visits and Mr Claussen said that that would be considered.
Mr Joel asked if more advice could be provided on the website to assist members of the public in accessing planning application information. He also asked if the Council was considering charging for pre-application advice. He knew of another authority that already did and then allowed a discount if a planning application was submitted.
The Planning Manager agreed that the website needed to be simplified and made clearer. He also thought that all Councils should charge for pre-application advice, but only if value was added to the service, and he did not feel that the Council was currently in a position to do that. He did not think that application fees should be discounted, as they were set by the Government and to do so would cause audit problems.
The Chairman had personal experience of a local authority that already charged for application advice and he echoed the Planning Manager’s thoughts on providing value.
Mr Rogers asked how many complaints were received about the Planning department from Parish Councils and individuals. The Executive Member did not know the numbers, but said that that was one of the reasons they were seeking to make changes as many of the complaints were about communication problems.
The Chairman asked why the Capita contract had not brought improvements to the IT systems for Planning as expected. The Executive Member explained that Breckland had made the decision to retain ownership of the systems, which had caused issues. Capita were willing to upgrade but would prefer to have free reign over the system. Improvements had been made; having plans on-line was one example.
The Chairman noted that another reason for choosing Capita had been the fact that they were a large organisation with diverse expertise which the Council could draw on for advice on complex planning applications. He asked if that had happened.
The Executive Member was not aware that they had and said he would take that question to the next Contract Monitoring Board meeting.
Mr R Richmond asked the Executive Member to look into a recent case where an applicant had complained about certain details included in a letter of objection, which had been published on the website.
The Chairman thanked Members for their questions and invited the Executive Member to update the Commission on the Housing part of his Portfolio.
The Executive Member advised that the number of people on the waiting list had increased whilst the number of properties available had reduced. There had been a 33% increase in the number of applicants to be on the waiting list.
With regard to homelessness, the Council worked hard on prevention and early intervention. This proved cost effective and was reflected in the relatively low use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
The Reviews extended to the Housing Teams. One had already been completed, leading to savings from reducing staff by two full time employees and maintaining standards by adopting different working practices.
As part of the on-going shared service reviews the Housing Advice Team, the Homelessness Team and then the Private Sector Housing Team would be reviewed. Although savings were sought there was no intention to affect front line services.
The Executive Member mentioned ‘One Future’ and for the benefit of new Members this was explained. The Council dealt with Registered Social Landlords (RSLs) as it did not own any housing stock itself. The three former stock transfer organisations, Peddars Way, Suffolk Heritage and Kings Forest had been ‘collapsed’ into a single entity ‘Flagship’ which the Council had formally heard would provide improvements to those tenants living in the Breckland District. One area of concern for the Council was that Flagship had not submitted a framework to the Homes & Communities Agency (HCA) to access funding for new build housing. The Council needed to deliver social housing and in the immediate future they were therefore looking to other partners as without a framework Flagship’s access to the money available was limited.
Mr Rogers noted that the Council had loaned money to the Housing Associations in the past to buy houses. When the Council had sold its own housing stock it had only been able to use the money to re-invest in housing. He asked if those loans had been re-paid. The Executive Member agreed to find out.
The Vice-Chairman asked if the current location of people on the waiting list was known and the Housing Manager explained that they knew where the people were located and which areas in the District had the greatest need. Local investment planning targeted those areas.
Mr Bambridge hoped that when the changes to the Planning Strategy became law the Council would provide more social housing in rural areas.
The Chairman was concerned that the Council had fallen behind the existing housing strategy in terms of delivery of new houses. He found the 33% increase in people applying to be on the waiting list alarming and asked if the reason for the increase was due to the economic climate or because more people were moving into the district.
The Principal Housing Officer advised that when the new Contract Based Lettings system had gone live it had created a spike in applications – a recognised phenomenon with new systems because they were easily accessible. She was able to confirm that there were only 55 people from outside the District on the list, which equated to 13% of the overall number. She thought that the changes in people’s circumstances together with the fact that some private rented properties were being sold were two of a range of reasons for the increase.
The Housing Manager advised that the increase could also be seen in the number of people presenting as homeless. There was an increase there too.
The Chairman asked if the increase was a trend, or just a ‘blip’.
The Executive Member said it was a combination of things including the depressed housing market. On a positive note, the Council’s ‘Restore’ scheme was already proving a success. This provided a grant of up to £5,000 to bring disused properties up to letable standard. Changes to the Benefits system were causing additional problems. If there were any ways to kick-start housing development they were being looked at.
The Housing Manager thought that there was likely to be a rise in numbers on the waiting list, year on year should the current economic conditions prevail. In reality however, the Council via its allocations policy could only help a fraction of the people on the list and she suggested that going forward the Allocations Policy could be tailored to target a less wide group of people and reflect Breckland rather than national needs. For those people that could not be housed, other advice could be provided.
Mr Rogers was concerned that a major developer in his area was refusing to start work on housing it had permission to build and that was having a knock-on effect on other parts of the development, which could not adopt roads without its contribution.
Mr Sharpe wondered if the supply of social housing was being affected by the 40% requirement level. He suggested that the figure should be revisited to try to encourage development.
The Executive Member explained that the 40% threshold had been set to address housing need, but that it was always a negotiating point.
Mr Gilbert was worried that people’s expectations of social housing were too high and Mrs Irving, Lead Member for Breckland Key Select said that during the 22 bid cycles so far over 7000 bids had been received for the 221 properties available. Affordable housing was a scarce commodity and not always the best route for some people.
The Executive Member advised that Mrs Irving was the Lead Member for the next item. The Chairman suggested that it was time to move on to that item. He thanked the Executive Member for his update.