Questions without Notice under Standing Order No 7 (Agenda item 8)
Councillor Jermy, the Leader of the Labour Group asked the Leader, Councillor Sam Chapman-Allen a question relating to test, trace and isolate which he felt had been a disaster nationally despite the significant costs incurred by Serco. Local Councils had been achieving a much better success rate in contacting people despite the lack of funding and he was aware of several local Council Leaders who had written to the Health Secretary calling for a greater role and more funding in respect of these tests and he asked if the Leader had written to the Health Secretary about this matter and if not would he commit to do so.
The Leader explained that local authorities were central to the NHS Test and Trace service and each upper tier local authority had been awarded funding to develop tailored outbreak control plans. Norfolk County Council already had a dedicated Team in place that delivered track and trace and the District Councils across Norfolk had pooled their resources to ensure that the right Officers were in place to undertake this service although Breckland Council had a bigger role to play in respect of the recent outbreaks within the District.
The Leader Stated that he had not written to the Health Secretary but had attended a recent meeting with the Director for Track & Trace along with other colleagues in which this question was raised and a response was still awaited.
Councillor Gilbert also directed his question to the Leader. He understood from reading the local newspaper that last month a meeting had been held between Breckland Council, the Cranswick Factory, the agency that supplied most of the factory’s work force and the Police about the living conditions of many of the Cranswick workers. He felt that it would have been a good idea if discussions could have taken place with local Members to see if they had any local knowledge or information that could have been taken to that meeting. Councillor Gilbert asked what the outcome was from that meeting and what was being done about the large number of Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs) in Watton many of which were within a few minutes walking distance of the factory. He said that he had reported over 20 HMOs in Watton.
The Leader urged Members, where they were aware of such incidences occurring, to raise these with Officers immediately. The meeting itself related to an isolated incident of two individuals who lived in non-permanent accommodation that had been dealt with at pace once it came to the Council’s attention. Re-education work was taking place with Cranswick on how the Council’s systems worked on allocations of housing and with Norfolk Police, on how the Council processed and supported any reports of rough sleeping and homelessness. The Leader was not aware of any further incidents in relation to rough sleepers or transient individuals but if there were, he asked Members to let Officers know immediately.
In respect of HMOs, Breckland did have legal HMOs across the District and there was a public register that any Member or the public could request. In relation to illegal HMOs, the Leader felt it was fair to state that this incident that had occurred in Watton had highlighted the fact that there were some within the community but was no different to any other market town and community across the country and he asked Members and the public if they had any concerns about the safety or welfare of fellow residents please do report it to Breckland Council using the website and officers would take the relevant action as necessary.
Councillor Gilbert said that he had notified the Officers of many HMOs in the town. He also applauded the Council for the actions that had been taken in respect of the rough sleepers in his Ward.
Councillor Birt asked the Leader two questions about the recent appointment of the Head of Paid Services (HoPS). The HoPs was a statutory role and one which must be filled, by law, by an Officer of this Council and he asked how this fitted with the comments that the Leader had made at the 8th October Full Council meeting in respect of this temporary position. Secondly, it had been claimed that the HoPs would have no line management responsibilities but he felt that this was not strictly correct because the HoPS was the ultimate person who hired and fired the executives of this Council which in his opinion was a line management responsibility. Councillor Birt felt that the Council had been misled at the said meeting.
The Leader thanked Councillor Birt for his question but pointed out if he had been aware of this question in advance of this meeting, he would have been able to provide a fuller response. He had not been given any advice to suggest that the recently appointed HoPS could not undertake that post’s statutory responsibilities.
As far as line management responsibilities were concerned, Councillor Birt was incorrect. It was not the role of the HoPS or the Chief Executive to undertake hiring and firing of Chief Officers as that fell within the remit of the Joint Appointments Committee of both Breckland and South Holland District Councils. Others went through the appropriate reporting channels with their Line Manager and the Head of HR. As such, the Leader was confident that the fixed term HoPS had no direct line management responsibility and was not responsible for hiring and firing.
Mark Stinson, the Executive Manager for Governance, explained that the Council was not restricted to making the appointment from within its existing officers and that there were many examples of external individuals being classed as officers of the Council.
Councillor Clarke had read in a local newspaper that Norfolk County Council had confirmed that it was working closely with Breckland Council on a Flood Risk Study and as many residents in his Ward had been affected by surface water flooding he asked Councillor Bambridge, the Executive Member for Environmental Services & Public Protection, if residents in these high risk areas around the Dereham stream would be consulted and be involved in this Study.
Councillor Claussen felt that the question should have been directed to him. As Councillor Duigan had made him aware of this situation, he had subsequently asked Rob Walker, the Executive Director of Place to investigate and these investigations were still on-going. The Executive Director was asked to provide Councillor Clarke with an up to date position after the meeting.
Councillor Kiddell referred to the earlier question in respect of the number of HMO’s that had been identified in Watton and asked Councillor Alison Webb, the Executive Member for Health & Housing, if she could provide an update on what was happening with these. In response, Members were informed that although Watton had been raised as a concern, there were HMO’s in other areas within Breckland where outbreaks of Covid had occurred and had been dealt with accordingly. The Council was looking at each case individually and making sure that self-isolation was being adhered to and being supported and Members were assured that all known HMO’s would be fully investigated and any necessary action would be taken to control the spread of the virus. The Executive Member asked Members to notify the Council if they had any concerns.
Councillor Dowling mentioned the Cosy Carpets building in Thetford and the money that Norfolk County Council had spent on it following which the building was returned to the premise’s owner. She asked the Leader if he had been made aware of this decision and whether he had been consulted on this matter.
The Leader said that he was not aware of the asset’s disposal and it would be unjust for him to comment on Norfolk County Council’s disposal policy and although he was pleased that the asset could be brought back into use he would discuss the decision further with Norfolk County Council.
Councillor Wickerson asked Councillor Claussen, the Executive Member for Planning, if he could confirm the total number of cases referred to the Planning Enforcement Team in 2020, as the website only reported three but at the September Overview & Scrutiny Commission meeting, Members were informed that 207 enforcement cases had been resolved.
Councillor Claussen said that if he had received written notice of the question, he would have been able to provide the figures, but he would find out and report back accordingly. Councillor Wickerson apologised; he did have his question prepared but had missed the deadline for submission on the agenda.
Councillor Morton welcomed the recruitment of a fixed term officer to assist with the establishment of the Council’s climate emergency response and he looked forward to the forthcoming Climate Change Forum. However, he was concerned as to whether the Council was sufficiently resourced to take advantage of substantial schemes being rolled out by Central Government and asked Councillor Sherwood, the Member Champion for Sustainability, if he could confirm that this Council would be seeking funds under the Green Homes Grant where expressions of interest had to be submitted by midday on 6th November 2020.
Councillor Sherwood was pleased to announce that the Council had received a high number of applications for the fixed term post. The Officer who had been supporting him during this initial phase of the Climate Strategy had been in contact with all relevant departments who had been looking at all the various grants and schemes available; however, he was unsure whether a request under the grant specifically mentioned had been submitted but he would find out and report back to him directly.
Councillor Brame, the Vice-Chairman of the Council, thanked the Leader for re-instating his Members’ Briefing papers and sending them out to all Town & Parish Councils. This information kept everyone up to date with everything that was happening in Breckland in respect of the pandemic. He asked, however, if the Leader could explain to everyone watching this meeting why Norfolk should be part of the national lockdown particularly as the number of cases were quite low in the region in comparison to elsewhere in the country.
Members were informed that many had called for a circuit breaker of two weeks but the medical advice was that for this to be affective it had to be for a longer period of time due to the epidemiology around the virus itself and its ability to spread. This was the most appropriate opportunity for the Government to initiate a 28 day restriction period and it was hoped that during these next 4 weeks, people would take stock and work from home if they could and reduce their travel to essential trips only to bring the spread of the virus and the ‘R’ rate down. If the virus continued on its trajectory, as it had in other parts of the country, there would be a wider impact to medical support and a significant reason for this lock down was to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. He hoped that by 2 December 2020 all would be moved back to ‘Tier 1’ status.
In relation to the Member Briefing communications, this would continue until the early part of 2021.
Councillor Harvey reported that he had received many messages from concerned residents about the increase of rat infestation along the river banks in Thetford and he asked the Executive Member for Environmental Services & Public Protection if the baiting regime was still working efficiently or whether it needed to be updated.
Councillor Bambridge recognised that there was a problem but needed to know the exact area. If it was on Breckland-owned land or elsewhere, a written response would be provided. Councillor Harvey confirmed that it was on Council owned land and he would email Councillor Bambridge accordingly.
Councillor Terry thanked Nathan Flatman, the Senior Communications Officer, for all his help throughout the last few weeks regarding a number of issues within his Ward.
His question was directed to the Leader.
Following a recent meeting with Thetford Police, it had been found that there was a growing concern that young people were becoming increasingly engaged in County Lines. This was of a great concern and he asked the Leader to update Members on what the Council was doing with its partners to try to address these worrying issues.
The Leader agreed that this was a growing concern not just in Thetford but across the whole of the County. Members were reassured that Breckland Council had invested over £1m into its Vulnerability Programme and part of that work was to reduce County Lines and again this Council had committed the sum of £70k to Norfolk Constabulary to reduce and deter criminal activity entering into the County. He and Councillor Terry had been due to undertake an engagement session at Thetford Academy to raise awareness and encourage individuals to report any drug related activity; but due to the lockdown this had unfortunately been deferred. Norfolk Constabulary was the pioneer in what it was trying to achieve in respect of County Lines and should be commended. He asked Members to use the Norfolk Police ‘Report It’ function if they had any concerns in respect of drug related activity within their Wards.
The Chairman reminded Members that if they had any questions in future to send them to the relevant Officer or the Cabinet Member prior to the meeting so that a detailed response could be provided.