Leader's Announcements (Agenda item 8)
To receive a verbal update from Councillor Sam Chapman-Allen, Leader of the Council.
The Leader was delighted that so many Members were in attendance for this Annual General Meeting to reflect on what had been quite a year for the Council.
The last few months had clearly brought major challenges and had required the Council to change its focus and priorities in order to best serve the immediate needs of Breckland’s residents and businesses.
The Leader took the opportunity to thank everyone for their support in responding to the pandemic and the role that all Members had played in keeping residents informed and protected as much as possible.
Members had passed messages on to residents within their Wards about the help available, made frontline teams aware of vulnerable residents, been involved in delivering food parcels and made welfare calls. Whatever the contribution, the Leader felt that the way Members had responded as a whole council – alongside support from local volunteers - had been fantastic.
He pointed out; however, that he did not want to overlook the excellent progress that had been made by the Council prior to the pandemic.
As a Council, its priority was to make sure the district was a great place in which to live, work, visit and invest. The delivery of quality, cost-effective services - such as regular bin collections, housing support and tacking anti-social behaviour was at the heart of what it did.
The Council played a key role in the health and wellbeing of its residents, delivering sustainable growth, and driving positive change among the communities.
Core services such as community safety, economic development, planning, housing, leisure, wellbeing and environmental services had been increasingly recognised as vital components of local health systems.
The Council had been helping vulnerable people protect themselves from harm or exploitation, with a particular focus on tackling county lines drug exploitation, domestic abuse and violence, social isolation, and mental health.
This included extending the popular Silver Social Arts Programme for a further three years, working with expert organisations, such as the Daisy Programme, that supported people experiencing domestic abuse, and reviewing opportunities to provide mental health first aid training to members of our communities.
Steps had also been taken in managing growth of the district - both in terms of housing and jobs and adopting the new Local Plan in December 2019 that would be used as a blueprint for growth until 2036, subject to review.
Another area of focus for the Council was climate change. The environment was an important issue for residents who wanted the Council to take action. The Council had committed to developing a long-term sustainability policy and programme of activity to address this issue. This would focus on ways the Council could be more environmentally-friendly as an organisation, ways it could influence its communities through statutory powers, and ways to empower communities to make greener lifestyle choices.
Whilst the pandemic had unfortunately slowed some of this work, it had not stopped the Council from making progress. In the last few months it had:
· Confirmed that the Council would be switching to a green energy tariff for its buildings from October this year;
· Promoted how it would work with housing developers to find opportunities to include bird and bee bricks and other environmentally-friendly initiatives as part of the Council’s planning function;
· Launched an initiative to let some green verges in the district grow longer to create wildflower havens for bees and hoverflies.
The recent pandemic had dominated everyone’s lives in recent weeks and months, and it seemed likely that all would have to continue to deal with the coronavirus in some shape or form for the foreseeable future.
From the start, the Council had moved the vast majority of its staff to work from home, created a support hub to care for its residents and set up grant processes to distribute funding to businesses in need – all in just a matter of weeks.
More than 3,600 people in Breckland had been classed as ‘extremely vulnerable’ by the NHS, with many unable to shop for food or collect vital mediation. The Community Hub, using many redeployed officers, with fantastic support from volunteers and local businesses, sent out more than 15,000 meals, made deliveries of medication and made welfare calls to those residents when they needed it most.
The lockdown period had clearly hit a number of businesses hard which was why the Council had also set up a ‘Shop in Confidence’ campaign to encourage people back to the high streets safely and help local businesses bounce back.
Support for businesses had also seen the Council distribute around £27m of national and local grant funding to support local businesses through a very difficult period. This had been a phenomenal response in contacting hundreds of local eligible businesses to ensure that they received the support they needed and the Council continued to offer support in terms of grant funding and expert advice going forward.
Covid had also brought significant financial pressures due to increases in costs compounded by lost income in some areas. Initially, the Council was looking at cost pressures of £3.7m in the current year, but through Government grants, the use of one-off reserve funding, and reviewing some projects, it had mitigated this gap down to around £220k. A revised, detailed budget would be presented to Council in September for review and approval.
The Leader hoped that all Members would join him in commending all officers for the speed, efficiency and effectiveness with which they had responded to this international issue.
While the office remained closed to the majority of staff for the time being, work was well underway to plan recovery and consider what the future would look like. The Council was looking to retain some of the positives that had come about – such as its proven ability to work in an agile way.
Looking ahead, the Council would continue to deliver against its vision of ensuring the district remained a place where people and businesses could thrive.
It would continue to deliver core services, but new opportunities would also be sought to enhance the district and help local people fulfil their full potential.
Continued support would be provided for Breckland residents, particularly those most vulnerable through initiatives such as the ‘TripStart’ transport scheme for unemployed or economically inactive individuals; the Silver Social Arts programme and Early Help collaborative working.
The Council would continue to support its economy to thrive, working both at a strategic level – through partnerships with the LEP, local growth programmes and as members of the Cambridge Norwich Tech Corridor – all the way through to on the ground support for local businesses, such as the local ‘Confidence’ campaign.
All Members had a major role to play in all the above, as well as emerging wider discussions that could come through to Norfolk, such as a drive for devolution and local government reform.
Breckland Council had an excellent track record of delivering for the people it served and he was confident that this would continue over the forthcoming year.
Members were invited to ask questions.
Councillor Brindle congratulated the Chairman for being re-elected for the ensuing year. He expressed a concern about bin collections and asked the Leader if Serco could be requested to be a little more imaginative in the way they carried out the contract in respect of Thetford. The riverside was a popular place for residents and visitors to the town during the summer months even more so since the pandemic. As a result the bins along that route were full well before the next collection was due and litter was being put on the ground alongside the bins that was blown about by the wind. He asked the Leader if Serco could be persuaded to empty the bins more frequently.
In response the Leader informed Councillor Brindle that he would look into this; however, he hoped that everyone would appreciate that the Council’s priority during the pandemic was to support household collections during this crisis. There had been a reduction of Serco staff at times due to isolating and other personal reasons, and he was aware that there had been a large increase in the volume of litter in popular tourist spots within the District during the crisis. The Leader stressed the importance of individual responsibility – if a bin was full, residents and visitors should take their rubbish home and place it in their own refuse bin.
Councillor Mark Robinson, the Executive Member for Community, Leisure & Culture reminded Thetford Members that a Town Council project was currently underway to map the locations of all the bins within the town and felt that once completed it would be a good idea to share that information with Serco.
Councillor Birt also congratulated the Chairman.He was aware that the Leader had attended the Attleborough Town Council meeting held on 13 July 2020 where he spoke about post-Covid recovery and had stated that, from a Breckland perspective, its priorities and focuses for residents and businesses would change. He asked the Leader if he could expand on what these changes might be and when Members might have a chance to discuss and scrutinise them.
On a point of process, the Leader advised that this question should really be taken under agenda item 9 – ‘Questions without Notice’; however, he was happy to respond.
The Leader explained that the world post-Covid had changed and throughout the pandemic the Council had supported many vulnerable residents and businesses across the District and in doing so the Council had to deal with a phenomenal amount of data and information alongside good working practices. As part of the recovery process this work and support had to continue and, in the coming months within the Council’s ‘Recovery’ statement, Members would most likely see the Community hub system being extended and made a permanent part of Breckland ‘business as usual’. This Community Hub had been so successful, working collectively with Town & Parish Councils, voluntary groups, Norfolk County Council and other partners to ensure that vulnerable residents across the District continued to be supported moving forward.
Likewise, in the Council’s business economy and investment support, had enabled an understanding of the needs of its residents and businesses to a greater extent than ever before and, as a result, the Council would have to extend and improve its Business and Investment Support Team. These were just some of the schemes that would be coming forward and the Cabinet was working diligently with senior officers across the Council to pull forward some of these ideas and suggestions. Additionally, in light of the emerging recovery budget, there would, in due course be a refresh of the Corporate Plan.
Councillor Jermy, the Leader of the Labour Group, congratulated the Chairman on her re-appointment and on behalf of the Labour Group took the opportunity to thank her for the welfare calls that she had made to Members, including his Group, that were really well received during the lockdown. He asked the Leader about furloughing, a question that he knew the Leader had asked at the New Anglia LEP Board meeting as he had read the Minutes, where the Leader had challenged the LEP to make available figures for the numbers of people that had been furloughed in each District. He wondered if the Leader would take this opportunity to highlight what support there might be from the Council for any businesses considering making staff redundant across Breckland once the furlough scheme changed/ended as the months progressed. He would like to see businesses supported by the Council; therefore, he asked if the Leader would take this opportunity to highlight what was or could be made available.
To date, HMRC had not been overly generous with furlough data relating to businesses across the County. New Anglia LEP, Norfolk County Council Economic Development Team and Breckland’s own Economic Development Team were aware of some businesses throughout the District who had already raised a number of concerns in respect of not being able to sustain their current workforce when the current furlough scheme changed at the beginning of August and ended in October 2020. As part of that, and in response to Councillor Jermy’s question, Breckland Council were working hard with New Anglia LEP, the DWP and the New Anglia LEP Skills Board to try and align possible vacancies so that those individuals could quickly re-apply for jobs, whilst working out the skills gaps in certain sectors. Breckland Council and other Councils across Norfolk were working at pace to help respond to the possible increase in job losses. Lack of central Government data was making this work more difficult. Part of the Council’s recovery, post-Covid, included increased focus on supporting businesses through the Business Support Team.
Councillor Atterwill mentioned the question that Councillor Brindle had asked earlier. He felt that there was a serious problem in the District, a complete lack of respect for the open countryside, the amount of rubbish/litter that had been left in some of the most beautiful areas was, in his opinion, horrendous. He was aware that there were volunteers going out on a regular basis to clear up this rubbish to protect the environment and the wildlife. He asked if Breckland Council along with the Town & Parish Councils could do a piece of work to promote the fact that everyone needed to have more respect for the countryside such as the much earlier ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ campaign that he felt had sadly fallen by the wayside. He hoped that Breckland Council could take this up through its Communications Team and Members to really emphasise the fact that it was not difficult to bag up your own rubbish and take it home and put in the refuse bins provided by Breckland Council.
He also asked the Leader if he would join him in saying a special thank you to the Democratic Services Team. Councillor Atterwill felt that all the staff within the Team had done a fantastic job throughout, whilst also recognising that it had been a herculean effort to get these virtual meetings up and running. As he himself had sat in on many of the meetings, he knew that Julie Britton and Teresa Smith were always a little nervous at the beginning of the meetings making sure that everyone was named properly and could be seen and heard; therefore he would like his thanks, on behalf of the Independents, to be placed on record and he hoped that everyone else would join him too as the Team had done a sterling job to ensure that all Members could carry on with their council work and communicate with their residents.
The Chairman thanked Cllr Atterwill for his kind remarks and felt that all Members would echo his sentiments.
The Leader completely endorsed all Councillor Atterwill’s remarks. Contemplating arranging a meeting for all Members whilst being streamed live via Youtube and Facebook to possibly hundreds of people he could appreciate the pressure the Team were under and he thanked all the Democratic Services Team not just for supporting meetings and Members but for helping many vulnerable people and businesses through the Community Hub. He completely agreed with Councillor Atterwill’s comments about litter; everyone had access to their own domestic bins and in response to Councillor Brindle’s earlier question, he urged everyone to take responsibility and have the decency to take their rubbish home. Members were reminded of the Council’s strong Enforcement Team, the envy of colleagues across the County, where officers had done an incredible job in respect of fly-tipping. Some of the income had been ring-fenced from the fines collected and predominantly that had supported an education scheme in schools in certain target areas across Breckland. He would also be more than happy to ask the Cabinet Member and Officers to study, with interested parties such as Town & Parish Councils, how a better campaign could be created across the District. The Leader pointed out that he was aware of a successful campaign in Yorkshire and that the Council could organise something similar in Breckland.