Questions without Notice under Standing Order No 7 (Agenda item 7)
Councillor Gilbert directed his question to the Leader. He had recently read an article in the local press about Capita staff being based 450 miles away and that the contract was not making any savings. He asked the Leader if he thought the article was fair and accurate and also asked whether the contract should be brought back in-house. The Leader did not agree with the article and advised that this was about bringing pressure to bear with the contractor, not ending the contract. Breckland Council was not alone; in fact, every authority in the Country was having difficulty in employing experienced Planners. He was uncomfortable about staff being miles away but the Council was doing as much as it could to eliminate this and a Special Board meeting was being held with Capita in December 2018.
Councillor Dimoglou posed the following questions to which he did not require a right of reply. His questions were directed to the Leader.
1) Forgive the history but this is even more relevant today, when you were due to take over as Leader of the Council my recollection was that there was serious disquiet amongst senior officers and some elected Members that they believed that you had an undisclosed personal connection to the people who sold Barnham Broom to the Council and that you were instrumental in persuading Councillors to vote blind to commit to spend £11m of what is effectively Breckland residents’ money on what was an asset that is outside of the District and in distress. In particular and if my memory serves me correctly, I remember a brief conversation with the Chief Executive, Anna Graves, who I believe said that Barnham Broom relationship had become problematic and that you would return as Leader as long as it took to right the ship. Now that you’ve succeeded in righting this ship to your satisfaction, will you fulfil the prophecy and resign as Leader of the Council.
2) If the need for secrecy in relation to Barnham Broom is an attempt by senior members of the Council to protect their own reputations over and above the needs of the 135,000 residents, did you feel it appropriate to freely discuss this on 22 October 2018 with Ian Martin, of the NHP for Yaxham and other prospective but unelected District Councillors.
3) Will the Leader join me after Full Council in my lonely Councillor one person protest outside these Council offices demanding that senior officers of this Council be more open, honest and objective when writing reports so that Members can be fully informed about issues for consideration rather than being spoon fed the answers Senior Officers and Managers want to get back.
With regard to Barnham Broom, the Leader stated at the time of the purchase, he did not have any association with anything or anybody from Barnham Broom; he never had and never would have and had never played golf there. It was a commercially sensitive deal when the Council bought it and it remained a commercial deal and that was his only interest in it in terms of getting any commercial return for the authority. He believed that his personal reputation and integrity would not allow him to do anything else on any issue for this Council and indeed in his personal life. In regard to the accusation of, did he return as Leader to ‘right the ship,’ no, not at all, he felt that the ‘ship’ was doing pretty well when he returned. The Councillors continued to do some really good things and he was slightly saddened that the said Councillor had felt the need to attack both the Officers and indeed himself but recognised the Councillor’s position on this. In terms of Anna Graves, the Chief Executive, and the attack that had been made on Officers he allowed the Chief Executive to respond. The Chief Executive reminded the said Member of the Council’s Constitution and the Code of Conduct that the Council had to adhere to and asked Councillor Dimoglou to provide evidence where he felt that this had been breached as she would be very interested to investigate that accusation. The Council provided the best possible information to Members to enable them to make the right decisions. Members also had a right to view all exempt information and like the Leader she was a little disappointed that this matter had been raised at this meeting rather than with her direct.
Councillor Brindle asked about small pieces of land that the Council was selling near to residents’ dwellings and wanted assurance that these residents were aware that this land was for sale and could purchase and retain it as open space or use it for car parking if they so wished. In response the Leader advised that it made good sense to offer such land to the people who lived nearest to it but he was aware of the parking problems on these estates and would ask Officers and the relevant Portfolio Holder to work with Flagship to address these issues.
Councillor Jermy highlighted the fact that it had been reported recently that South Norfolk District Council had now reached 100% broadband cover and wanted to know why Breckland had not. The Leader informed Members that he lived near the border of South Norfolk and some of his neighbours did not have good broadband cover. This was incredibly difficult in the remote spots of Breckland and this Council was constantly pushing Government for additional funding to ensure the infrastructure was there for these isolated areas.
Councillor Clarke asked Councillor Bambridge, the Portfolio Holder for Growth and the Cabinet Member responsible for the Local Plan, whether there would be a specific review taking place for the Local Plan process going forward. He also, as the Member who called in the Barnham Broom decision, made further comments in relation to private & confidential matters. Councillor Bambridge was unable to comment as this was not within his Portfolio. In relation to the planning process, Members were informed that there would be a review and further details would be provided under agenda item 13. He explained that the length of time in relation to the Local Plan was average for the whole Country. He, himself, had attended over 100 meetings including Parish meetings where the Local Plan had been discussed and although these modifications had delayed the process, Breckland’s Local Plan was expected to go live by June 2019; however, this was entirely in the hands of the Planning Inspector. In response to an observation about it being more of a National Plan than a Local Plan, Councillor Bambridge advised that all Planning authorities had to comply with the National Planning Policy Framework.
Councillor Hollis raised concern about complaints that she had received in relation to the Key Select website. Many residents had complained as the website was not working and therefore did not allow them to bid for housing. This concern was directed to Councillor Bambridge. In response, Councillor Bambridge advised that this was a national computer glitch but assured Members that no-one would be disadvantaged as there was an email address and a contact number that residents could use. He asked Councillor Hollis to pass any specific concerns/incidences on to him and he would pass them through to the appropriate Officers.
Councillor Hollis also asked a question about empty MOD properties. Councillor Bambridge said he would raise this matter again with Officers.
Councillor Gilbert directed his question to the Leader. He highlighted the Council’s Protocol on Officer/Member relations where it clearly stated that the Council would keep local members fully informed on all matters which affected their electoral wards. This had not happened in respect of some tree work that had been carried out in his Ward. The Leader said that it would have been helpful to have been asked this question in advance of the meeting but he would take this matter up with the Officer concerned.
Councillor Borrett asked the Leader if he shared his surprise about the earlier comments made in relation to commercial decisions being considered in exempt session and mentioned a Labour Council which had bought a commercial asset. The Leader emphasised the need for confidentiality in commercially sensitive matters and would continue to defend that process going forward.
Councillor Crawford asked the Leader a question in relation to the Council’s digitalisation programme. He had not been able to find what he was looking for and when he tried to contact the relevant Officer to discuss the issue, it had been difficult to find the Council’s main contact number on the website. The Leader was surprised that it could not be found but he would look into this matter. Councillor Robinson, the Portfolio Holder for Governance pointed out that a simple google search brought up all options on how to contact the Council. Councillor Jermy stated that a list of all contact telephone number could be found on the back page of Breckland Council’s residents’ magazine.
Councillor Wilkinson directed his question to the Leader. He wanted to know if the £900k that the Council had put aside for broadband had been drawn down by BT. He was asking the question as he knew of many pupils that were unable to do their homework on-line. Members were informed that it was Norfolk County Council’s responsibility to draw down this money.
Councillor Richmond thanked the Leader for attending the previous Town & Parish Council Forum. He believed the next one was being held sometime in February 2019 but as yet had not been confirmed.