Questions without Notice under Standing Order No 7 (Agenda item 7)
- Meeting of Budget and Council Tax Setting, Council, Thursday, 21st February, 2019 10.00 am (Item 24/19)
Councillor Clarke asked the Leader if he would rule out completely the introduction of car park charging at Cherry Tree car park and elsewhere after the 2nd May Elections so as not to stifle initiative in the market towns. The Leader said that he could not provide Councillors with an answer as he did not know if, following the Elections, he would be elected as Leader. This was; however, a manifesto commitment.
Councillor Dimoglou asked two short questions of Councillor Cowen, the Executive Member for Finance & Delivery:
· The first question was in relation to one of the outstanding success stories of this administration, the Unsightly Sites Policy. At a recent Overview & Scrutiny Commission meeting, a presentation had been provided on the progress of some unsightly sites and although he had been impressed with the progress, the actual initiative seemed as if it could have benefited from enhanced resources. Councillor Dimoglou asked if the Finance department intended to better fund and support this important aspect of work.
· Councillor Dimoglou also asked the Executive Member to confirm if the Council Tax increase was once again, the maximum permitted by law as this had been the fourth year running that this increase had been applied despite Breckland Council having millions of pounds in Reserves which he felt would be another blow to hard pressed families living in Breckland.
· In response to the first question, in relation to unsightly sites, the Executive Member for Finance & Delivery explained that the Council did not have a specific budget for unsightly sites due to the unknown factor of Government funding year on year. However, funding had been allocated in various areas of the budget, in particular, in the Place Portfolio within the Inclusive Growth Reserve. He explained that it was impossible to allocate a specific amount for such matters as the costs were unknown and ultimately, the Council could be criticised for either over spending or under spending if a specific budget had been allocated.
In terms of the budget, the Executive Director of Commercialisation & S151 Officer explained that there was a history for this authority having to deal with some difficult sites and funds had been allocated for works/legal costs accordingly; this funding could be either a one-off or for more minor cases, funding would be utilised from existing budgets. The Executive Director of Place advised that most of these matters were part of the day job across the Communities Team and the Planning & Enforcement Team; however, if in a particular case, a more significant spend was required, Cabinet would be approached to request additional funds from the Inclusive Growth Fund.
· In response to Councillor Dimoglou’s second question in relation to the Council Tax increase, the Executive Member for Finance & Delivery explained that this authority had been given the opportunity 4 years ago to look, as a low taxing authority, how it could increase its Council Tax - given that all authorities were facing significant funding cuts from Central Government. Council Tax had been increased which had been a wise choice by this authority as it had been able to counter the reduction in Rate Support Grant and, looking ahead, had put itself in a better position to minimise the impact of the New Homes Bonus being lost which was likely to come into effect in 2020. This modest increase in monetary terms worked out to be an additional £4.95 per annum for people living in a Band D property; therefore, in response to Councillor Dimoglou’s second part of his question, 77% of Breckland’s residents did not live in a Band D property, most lived in Bands A to C and again, in monetary terms, the actual increase which the Council would expect them to pay was less than £2 per annum. This minimal increase, in his opinion, would not cause anyone a huge problem financially over the year particularly given the quality of the services that the Council provided and more importantly, aiming to improve the quality of life for people within its market towns and in its rural areas.
Councillor Brindle asked Councillor Bambridge, the Executive Member for Growth a question that he had drawn his attention to at a previous Council meeting about an issue in Glebe Close, Thetford in relation to long drawn out concerns of below standard private landlord housing. He asked if the Executive Member could confirm that there would be an internal review of this incident to establish if any lessons had been learnt in the way Breckland Council dealt with such matters. In response, Councillor Bambridge advised that in respect of the issue raised previously, the Council had dealt with it and had visited the building in question and on 8th February 2019, urgent prohibition orders had been issued on 3 of the 4 dwellings. Then on 13th February, the Council issued improvement notices on all 4 of the dwellings for a range of hazards resulting in a multi-disciplinary meeting being held which included the Fire Service; this had proved to be very useful as very recently, a serious fire had broken out in the building and the people from one of the flats had been re-housed even though that particular flat had not been one of the flats considered to be unfit for human habitation. As from 20 February, an update had not been provided as it was still considered to be a crime scene of possible arson. Regarding the internal review, one had taken place which he had not been party to but he would be receiving an update at his Portfolio meeting. Once out of Police hands and the building was back with the Landlord, this authority would be conducting a review by which time he would be happy to answer any more questions. In the meantime, regular Landlord Forums were taking place in order to improve the quality of living standards.
Councillor Jermy directed his question to Councillor Robinson, the Executive Member for Governance. He stated that Norfolk County Council was now live-streaming its meetings, particularly the Cabinet meetings, which he felt was a really useful way of encouraging public scrutiny and holding elected Members to account. He asked if there were any plans for Breckland to follow suit and install such a facility once the new Council, following the Elections, was underway. Councillor Robinson pointed out that Breckland Council’s facilities were currently undergoing a review to become more user friendly going forward and live streaming was being considered.