Leader's Announcements (Agenda item 5)
To receive a verbal update from Councillor Sam Chapman-Allen, Leader of the Council.
Councillor Sam Chapman-Allen, the Leader of the Council made the following announcements.
He was delighted that this meeting was being held in the council chamber, for the first time in a very long while. Although most Members had met in person in July, to be back in a familiar setting, was truly a major milestone in this Council returning to a ‘new normal’ - whilst taking steps to mitigate against covid – such as receiving vaccinations, adhering to social distancing and using hand sanitiser – it had not stopped the democratic process.
He was proud of the support that this Council had provided – and continued to provide – to local businesses and residents, keeping local lives and livelihoods at the forefront of activity throughout the pandemic, and as everyone began to emerge from the pandemic, this Council already had a number of initiatives underway to ensure Breckland had a bright future.
For example, as part of the Council’s Future Breckland programme, a draft plan for Dereham had recently been released for feedback. This could mean some bold changes being made to the town, including rerouting traffic, creating new housing and business opportunities, and brightening up the high street.
Through the same initiative, residents in Watton and Swaffham were being invited to attend imminent engagement events to discuss their towns, there were so many things that were fantastic about Breckland’s market towns whilst also recognising that things could be made even better going forward.
Finally, Attleborough and Thetford residents would get their turn to have their say on their town in the New Year.
Further works were underway to improve the district to make it more attractive for residents and visitors.
Just recently, in Thetford, the former riverboat restaurant which had sat for years at the town’s riverside had been removed by this Council, in response to residents and businesses in the area identifying it as an eyesore which was bringing the town down.
This was an opportunity to address, and Breckland Council took action. It was a great example of this Council listening to local voices and investing in its towns, making the riverside more attractive and constantly pushing the towns forward. It was fantastic news residents and coincided with the entertainment complex now being fully let and further improvements being made to the surrounding area.
Meanwhile, in Dereham, the Council was supporting the delivery of the Ellenor Fenn community garden, which was being delivered in partnership with the About Dereham Group, Dencora and the local Baptist Church, with funding from Central Government and this Council’s Market Town Initiative.
The new public space off Dereham’s high street had brought together a number of local groups and businesses to turn a disused wasteland into a beautiful garden meeting space for the community, and he was thoroughly looking forward to it being officially opened on Saturday, 11th September.
Finally, in Swaffham, work would shortly get underway as part of Heritage Action Zone programme, which would see a £700,000 programme focusing on enhancing the town while protecting its rich heritage.
This was expected to include making repairs to buildings on the historic high street to bring them back to their former glory, while developing a plan for the town’s future which made the most of the town’s history and heritage, to make it even more attractive to residents, visitors and shoppers.
The district had faced an immense challenge during the covid pandemic but was getting through it and was now set to take further strides forward into a bright future, ensuring Breckland remained a place where people and businesses could thrive.
The Leader then introduced Mr Ronnie Coutts MBE MA, Managing Director for Serco Environmental Service, in attendance who was going to provide Members with an update of the Serco contract.
Mr Coutts supported 24 other councils across the UK and joining him at the meeting was Emma Windle, Senior Contract Manager for Norfolk who led the Teams in Breckland, North Norfolk & Kings Lynn & West Norfolk.
There was currently a shortage of approximately 65,000 HGV drivers not just in Breckland but across the UK. There were several factors to consider for this shortage - the loss of EU nationals and the significant increase elsewhere for Amazon drivers, increased salaries, and the move to other industries.
In Breckland, the contract was working well but it had been a difficult mobilisation, not only in respect of the new contract but building a new depot and receiving the new vehicles during Covid.
During this transition weaknesses were found in the management team and these issues had been addressed. Serco’s commitment to Breckland was for the long term and was about getting the right people in place to serve the communities.
There were around 1700 properties (2% in total) that had not had their bins collected. Overall, over 90,000 bins were collected by Serco every single week in Breckland.
In terms of drivers and vacancies - 17 refuse trucks were deployed each day, there were currently 8 vacancies with 3 new starters joining the company very soon. Jobs were being advertised on the Council’s website to attract drivers, rates of pay were being changed and 7 loaders were being trained as drivers. There was a backlog of HGV tests until November and would take a few months to bring the staff up to full complement – it was not a quick fix.
The crews, supervisors and managers were all doing a fantastic job, working all hours and were very keen to help and make a better service. Drivers from other councils were being utilised and were volunteering to come to Breckland and work at weekends to catch up. Agency drivers were being used but only for the short term.
There were benefits from the tri party arrangements as it enabled managers, vehicles, and crews to be moved to support demand and provide further assistance when needed.
Reducing carbon footprint formed a big part of the work by reducing the number of vehicles on the road and finding shorter routes.
The Chairman asked that any in-depth questions should be emailed to the Chairman of O&SC before the O&SC meeting on Thursday so that responses could be provided.
Cllr Jermy mentioned staff welfare and was pleased that it was being addressed. Earlier this year, opposition members had raised numerous concerns about the Serco contract and these issues had continued and it had been reported that agency workers were being paid 20% to 30% more than permanent staff and asked for an estimate for these additional costs and who was paying for it, Breckland or Serco.
Mr Coutts stated that agency rates were higher than what the individual would receive as an agency had to take their costs into account. Serco was increasing its rates of pay for the drivers and the Team had been briefed. Serco was responsible for paying those additional costs. Serco did not want to hire agency staff, permanent employees was preferred and the benefit of working for a company long term was quite different to agency work, such as paid holidays etc.
Councillor Kiddell asked for reassurance that Watton would be kept tidy in the same manner as it had been before under this new contract.
Mr Coutts stated that teams had been brought in to help with the street cleansing schedules but occasionally road sweepers/cleaners would have to be moved to help with refuse and recycling for continuity, particularly with the current shortages of staff and drivers. Tactical short- term decisions had to be made.
Cllr Dowling asked the Leader about the significant pressure and reported bullying of Serco workers and asked if Breckland Council had a duty of care to these workers and how it ensured that their welfare was being treated fairly.
The Leader stated that Breckland Council as an employer had a very clear whistle blowing policy in place and in respect of Serco, they would have the same standards and processes. He implored members that if they had any concerns or if any issues had been reported directly to them, they had a moral duty and a duty of care to report the matter to Maxine O’Mahony, the Head of Paid Services who would pass these concerns onto Serco who was responsible for the welfare and duty of care for their staff. He knew that Serco would take a robust approach if that type of behaviour was taking place. They were private HR issues between the employer and the employee.
Cllr Terry mentioned the significant delay for residents getting replacement or new garden waste bins and asked what the estimate was for lost income for Breckland Council whilst these delays persisted.
The Leader stated that members may or may not be aware that there were very few suppliers across the country who were manufacturers of bins and for numerous reasons there was a delay across the country for the delivery of new bins. However, he was pleased to inform Members that the deliveries had arrived, and Serco had been extra resilient within their Teams to be able to transport those bins to new customers and to get the replacement bins out to those in need. Both Breckland and Serco had been in communication with those residents who had experienced such delays and had apologised accordingly.
Members were reminded that Breckland Council had continued to provide garden waste collections throughout the pandemic unlike Rotherham County Council who had disregarded their garden waste scheme completely.
Cllr Atterwill asked Mr Coutts about grass cutting particularly in his Ward where the grass used to be cut every 2 to 3 weeks but since the new contract it was being cut a lot less. The Leader thought this was quite a technical question and was aware that Mr Coutts would not be aware of the zoning position and the rates of cut across the whole of the district. The focus of the conversation was around missed bins and he asked Cllr Atterwill to defer his question until the O&SC meeting next Thursday.
Cllr Atterwill did not feel that this was acceptable.
It was agreed that the Leader would send a written response to Councillor Atterwill.
Councillor Ian Martin said that the experience within the Mattishall Ward over the last few weeks had been remarkably good. Bins had been missed one day and had been dealt with the following day (except for one) but overall, he felt that it had been a remarkably good service. He asked if there was a contact number/email that Councillors could use to make direct contact with Serco or via a particular Officer if there were any particular concerns that needed to be raised within Members’ Wards.
An updated contact list would be provided for Members after this meeting.
The Chairman welcomed Councillor Martin to the meeting as he had been unwell for quite a while.
Mr Coutts said that contact details would be provided but the best and quickest way to make contact was through the call-centre as the call was sent directly to the cabs and pushed straight through to the crews so that the issue could be sorted immediately. All this was done via Whitespace and was working well. If it was a complicated matter, then the preferred method would be to email or contact one of the officers direct such as Emma Windle (Serco) or Riana Rudland (BDC).
The Leader and the Chairman thanks Mr Coutts for attending the meeting.