Executive Member Portfolio Update (Agenda Item 7)
Councillor Elizabeth Gould, Executive Member for Planning, Building Control and Housing, has been invited to attend the meeting to update Members on key ongoing issues and policies within her portfolio and to answer any questions.
Councillor Gould, Executive Member for Planning, Building Control and Housing was in attendance to update the Commission on issues in her portfolio. She introduced the Officers from the Planning and Housing Teams who were with her to answer any specific questions.
The Council was now a third of the way through the 15 year contract. Efficiency and productivity had improved markedly against a background of more complex and formalised legislative requirements.
Capita did not just provide the planning service for the Council it also provided environmental planning, planning policy, tree and countryside service, building control, land charges, local searches, street naming and numbering and a spatial information service. All of those services were monitored on a monthly and annual basis by the Council and its Contract Monitoring Board and in Officer Group meetings.
Whilst the past six years had not been without problems, when issues occurred Capita responded immediately. It had achieved success with obtaining two additional ISO accreditations and had improved performance by taking a more pro-active approach to community engagement.
A recent change had been a jointly funded post which had been filled by Mike Brennan. He now acted as a single point of contact for Members and officers, dealing with a wide range of enquiries, most of which he responded to within 24 hours. Mike also continued to handle ‘call-ins’ to the Planning Committee and had recently been tasked with reviewing the Planning website.
Capita produced a bulletin called ‘Breckland Matters’ for Councillors and Town and Parish Councils which provided updates on planning issues and had had been well received.
To support service delivery Capita had increased the number of technical and professional staff and provided additional resource for the Planning Enforcement Team. They had also drawn on their wider professional expertise to deliver the Thetford Urban Extension (SUE). Simon Wood had done an excellent job on that project.
The economy had changed over the six years of the contract. Capita had just had its best trading year in terms of contract work so far and were on the up at last. Areas for future work were:
· Upgrading the OCELLA software system
· Taking an active role in the Neighbourhood Plan process
· Keeping up to date with changes in legislation
· Speeding up the Section 106 process
· Introducing a Deemed Consent process
· Developing a public facing mapping system
Although there had been some challenges in the first years of the contract they had been addressed and Capita continued to review processes and procedures and staff training to provide a robust and resilient service for the Council and its public.
Jonathan Ellis – Regional Operations Manager had been responsible for the partnership since 2012. He acknowledged that in the early years’ performance had not been good and the service was still not where he wanted it to be but there had been a marked improvement in reporting and communicating.
Councillor Sharpe asked how the Council could react to the loss of finance caused by the new limit on S106 agreements and the effect that would have on social housing provision.
The Executive Member explained that the limit had been increased to boost development. The Council was looking at ways to provide social housing through the LABV project and other means.
The Director of Planning & Business Manager noted that Breckland had chosen not to implement CIL (Community Infrastructure Levy) because it had been too costly but the regulations kept changing and there might be an opportunity to pull back resources in the future.
The Operations and Contract Manager explained that the changes in legislation meant that S106 money could only be used for specific projects so he would be writing to all the Town and Parish Councils asking them to nominate such projects.
Councillor Gilbert thanked the Director of Planning & Business Manager for attending a difficult meeting in Watton. He was also pleased to have Mike Brennan as a central contact – that was working well. In the beginning Members had been told that the contract would bring money to Breckland. He asked how much it had brought so far.
The Executive Member advised that due to the renegotiation of the major application fee £350,000 had been brought in over the last two years, but the difficult financial times meant that the contract had not reached the point of providing income yet.
Jonathan Ellis explained that part of his job was to ensure the partnership was fair and the contract had been reviewed to provide the income split from major applications.
The Director of Planning & Business Manager pointed out that there had been two elements to the contract and it had guaranteed savings of £2.213million over the life of the contract.
Dave Jolley said there had been challenging business growth targets, but he had seen a significant pick up in the last 12/18 months.
Councillor R Richmond asked about Neighbourhood Plans which he had been told were not watertight and could be over-ruled.
The Director of Planning & Business Manager agreed that the Planning Inspectorate the Secretary of State and the High Court could all overturn decisions and there were therefore no guarantees. However, the Council was supporting their preparation and contributing to funding.
Councillor Bambridge thought that overall Capita had done a good job for the Council but he was happy that the website was being looked at.
Jonathan Ellis said that he was responsible for fixing things that were not working. The biggest fault had been in communication and they had employed a better communication strategy with Members and with Parishes. He would be happy to take on any suggestions that would make a Member’s job easier.
Councillor Darby asked if the 40% social housing requirement was realistic. He also asked how many major applications were dealt with within the time limit.
The Executive Member responded that 40% was too high from a planning point of view and too low from a housing point of view. If the site was not viable the social housing provision was sorted out with the District Valuer. Some pieces of land were coming forward with 0% provision but they had a clawback clause so that if the economic climate improved the provision could be reassessed.
The Operations and Contract Manager referred to the major application figures. Not many were dealt with within the timescale due to the necessity of drafting a legal agreement for the planning obligations. However, the legislation had changed to allow an agreed extension of time with the applicants without penalty.
Councillors Rogers and Matthews both felt that 40% was too high and the Executive Member confirmed that it would be changing in the new Local Plan.
The Chairman noted that it was a Policy that the Council had adopted which could not be unpicked individually. It had been the right decision at the time it had been made.
The Leader of the Council agreed and said it was an aspirational figure and 21% was the average attained. He thought 40% OK as long as the Council was flexible. He also commented that the relationship with Capita was monitored and regulated and the Council had its hand firmly on the tiller and the decisions were made by the Council not by Capita.
Councillor Borrett was pleased that another innovative project by the Council was working well. He did have an issue with enforcement though. There was a matter in Billingford that was causing cost, fallout and reputational damage to the Council. He just wished to flag it as an issue and thought it would be helpful to have a strategy to manage such things. With regard to Neighbourhood Plans he was glad that the Council was supporting the parishes but concerned that there was a conflict issue with money being spent on creating something that might be at odds with the Council. He thought there needed to be a strategy to manage expectations. Finally he suggested that a Policy on influencing Government was needed for such issues as the Five Year Housing Land Supply as the Council needed to be able to represent communities which were damaged by Policies which were not the Council’s fault.
The Chairman thought that as elected representatives Members needed to be able to communicate with and guide their parishes. He referred to a meeting to be held the following day that the Council was facilitating to enable discussions between the DCLG and NALC. The presentations could be circulated to interested Members. Training on the National Planning Framework would be included in the induction for new Members.
The Executive Member agreed that it was important for Ward Representatives to guide their parishes. With regard to enforcement problems she said that with the new Enforcement Team Leader the Council was in a much stronger position.
The Leader of the Council said it was the Council’s responsibility to work with Parishes and to be a single point of contact to give advice and to help with funding.
Councillor Gilbert thought it was better to make good decisions than quick decisions. He also suggested that it was better to be pro-active than re-active; to identify areas to develop and see which developers were interested.
Councillor Kybird wondered which caused the biggest headache – the Stone Curlew or the Five Year Housing Land Supply.
Councillor R Richmond was very pleased to have Mike Brennan as a point of contact as he had had problems with officers failing to return his calls. He asked Capita to stress the importance of responding to Members.
The Chairman asked about a specific major application which had original gone to Committee with a recommendation of refusal. It had been withdrawn and then resubmitted with minor changes and went back to Committee recommended for approval. He was concerned about that and about applications being accepted without all the necessary supporting information.
With regard to the change of recommendation, it was a subjective judgement on landscape impact and in the view of officers there had been a significant change with a reduction in the area affected and the provision of buffer zones.
With regard to applications being accepted and validated, the aim was to be consistent. There were clear national and local requirements but it was not always obvious what might be needed at the start of the process.
Jonathan Ellis was pleased to advise that the right calibre of officers were now applying to the Council and that there were excellent support officers. Members should be confident that they would get what they had paid for.
Richard Preston, Operations Director, said that Officers were taking on external work for South Norfolk, but that was monitored weekly to ensure that the right resources were available.
The Executive Member introduced Tim Mills, the newly appointed Interim Manager and Alex Hand, Senior Housing Advisor.
Housing had had a successful 2014 but faced a number of challenges in 2015. The Council had to find ways to increase the delivery of housing, particularly affordable housing.
With the advent of the Care Act the Council needed to work with the County Council and the Clinical Commissioning Groups in the delivery of adaption and related services. In view of that Tim Mills had been brought in to focus solely on housing in Breckland. Tim was an experienced consultant and manager who had previously worked at another local authority as Director of Housing and Development.
There had been increased activity with the Restore Grants which were given to bring empty properties back into use. Each property that was successfully brought back into use counted towards the New Homes Bonus, as well as bringing additional Council Tax income and providing an additional home.
Disabled facility and Re-able grants had also continued to be offered although they had been affected by vacancies at NCC Occupation Therapy Service.
Work was continuing to reduce the number of people on the housing register and to accurately assess their housing needs. The Council was also responsible for providing temporary accommodation for those considered homeless and vulnerable whilst their care was assessed. The net cost of that service had been significantly reduced, by an agreement with Flagship Housing to use their empty properties, rather than relying on bed and breakfast accommodation.
The work of the housing options team was divided into three main functions: Housing allocations, Housing advice and Homelessness. The team managed the housing register which received on average 10 to 12 applications per day on-line. The applications were checked to ensure that there was a local collection before they were added to the register. Applications were ‘banded’ according to their need. ‘Priority’ status was given to homeless applicants and those with very high medical need. ‘Gold’ for high need, ‘Silver’ for medium need and a final band of ‘no reasonable preference’. On average 600 allocations were made a year.
In the current financial year 531 households had been prevented from becoming homeless either by securing their current accommodation or working with them to find alternative accommodation. If homelessness could not be prevented the Council had a duty to assess whether temporary accommodation should be provided and in the current year 76 homeless applications had been considered.
The Council owned a supported housing hostel for the homeless in Thetford. Day to day management of the hostel was contracted out to the Access Community Trust and that contract was monitored by the Housing Team.
In conclusion, the emphasis of the service was on prevention and enabling customers to achieve the best outcome.
Councillor Sharpe asked what happened if social housing was built but there was no suitable local applicant. He also asked whether the Council should be able to ask for the right sort of social housing.
The Executive Member pointed out that even if there was no-one on the waiting list from the immediate area there would be people with a local connection eligible to be housed there. As for getting the right sort of housing, all the Council could do was negotiate with developers and try to get the right housing to meet local need.
Councillor Gilbert said that he had asked for the Housing Advice Team to be invited to the meeting because he wanted to flag up the excellent work that they did. He had been involved in a case with a local resident whose life had been turned around thanks to the help of the Team and he congratulated them on the service they provided.
Councillor R Richmond congratulated the team on getting so many empty houses back into use. He asked who was responsible for paying Council Tax on empty properties and was advised that the landlord had to pay if the house was in a habitable condition.
The Vice-Chairman wished more could be done to force landlords to bring properties back into use, as he knew of a three bedroom house in his Ward which had been empty for eight years. He was aware of the issue with Occupational Therapists and confirmed that NCC was trying to do something about it. With regard to housing allocations he wondered if there was any information about the nationality of people on the Register as public perception was that foreign nationals were being housed before local people.
The Senior Housing Advisor pointed out that people had to be eligible to be on the Register. Eligibility criteria included having lived in the area for three years or having a job in the District.
Councillor Bambridge thought that houses should be built to match local need. The Interim Manager agreed and said that they wanted to get the housing mix right but the problem was that planning permission was given a long time before properties were actually built and things could change in that time.
Councillor Kybird noted that in 2018/19 it would become illegal to rent properties that did not meet certain energy ratings. He asked if the Council would have a Policy to upgrade houses to meet that requirement.
The Interim Manager said that it was not yet clear how that legislation would affect Breckland. They were looking at home energy issues and he would feed back any information he received.
The Chairman thanked the Executive Member and the Officers for their update.