Questions on Notice under Standing Order No 6 (Agenda item 7)
· Question received from Cllr Morton:
It is now nearly a year since a Climate Change Emergency was declared. The Leader then called upon the Council to develop its commitment and implementation of an overarching and achievable sustainable Breckland Strategy. This would set out the policies, strategies, implementation plans and resourcing requirements to embed the values of sustainability into the Council’s services, delivery and operations. The Council would work with key stakeholders across the District, including Norfolk County Council, neighbouring local authorities, the Local Enterprise Partnership, businesses and of course, its residents who could contribute to a Sustainable Breckland Strategy. He assured Members that Cabinet would be discussing this Strategy early in 2020.
To expedite meaningful progress will the Cabinet Member for Sustainability create a Cross Party Working Group where the Breckland Strategy outlined by the Leader could be discussed and developed in a transparent cross-party approach?
· Question received from Cllr Birt:
The need for a Carbon Audit to start measuring our carbon emissions was raised in January when funding was deemed to not be a problem.
It is extremely disappointing to now learn that we cannot undertake a full Carbon Audit because the relevant organisations are busy carrying out audits with other Councils. Applying for the LGA Net Zero Innovation Programme is a noble aspiration and I hope we succeed but there are only ten places so the competition will be strong. Many of us believe we need to show greater urgency and rather than put all efforts in one direction we need to also pursue alternative solutions.
- What alternatives solutions have been considered?
- Why have we been unable to quantify our carbon consumption using simple tools and existing consumption data?
- Has the LGA Carbon Accounting tool been reviewed?
- What will be the nett carbon saving per year from our switch to a renewable electricity supplier (both for Breckland and the UK as a whole)?
In line with the Constitution, the following questions and responses had been circulated to Members prior to the Full Council meeting as included below.
Also in accordance with the Constitution, a number of supplementary questions were also asked.
For ease of reference, the supplementary questions have been included in italics below.
· Question received from Councillor Roger Atterwill to the Executive Member of Planning
Councillor Atterwill had recently been advised that the Council had ceased using the District Valuer to assess developer viability assessments and was instead using a private company called CP Viability Ltd. He asked if the reason(s) for this change could be confirmed:
Ø whether a competitive tender process had been followed
Ø who within the Council authorised this change; and
Ø how could local residents be assured that assessment advice received by CP Viability Ltd wasimpartial.
The decision to do this was taken because there had been concerns expressed by Members and officers about viability appraisals and it was considered that it was appropriate to go to the market and look to appoint a Valuer to advise the Council on such matters.
The contract was openly tendered in December 2019 and was uploaded to Contracts Finder. The contract commenced on 1st March 2020 and would run until 28th February 2023. There was an option to extend the contract.
The cost for carrying out viability appraisals was recharged to the developer/applicant so there was no direct cost to the Council.
It was considered that the traditional providers of viability appraisals had links to the development industry and their impartiality could not be assured. The decision had therefore been taken to appoint a consultant with no links to the development industry and would be more challenging to the appraisals provided. The company that had been appointed worked exclusively for the Public Sector and the tender had been designed so that only bids from companies that worked exclusively for the Public Sector would be accepted. This was considered to provide a greater assurance of impartiality and challenge to the development industry. This was a delegated decision.
· Supplementary Question:
In terms of the Council not using the District Valuer anymore, Councillor Atterwill welcomed the appointment of a private company to undertake viability appraisals but asked that, in future, when any decisions such as these were made, that the Chairman of the Planning Committee be informed in the first instance rather than Members being informed of such changes by a third party.
In the absence of the Executive Member for Planning, the Leader said that this procedural matter would be investigated, and in future, any decisions that affected the planning process would be reported to the Chairman of the Planning Committee accordingly.
· Question received from Councillor Roger Atterwill to the Executive Member of Planning:
At the Cabinet meeting held on 13th July 2020 the Executive Member for Planning had been asked if planning conditions placed on any permission decision notices were subsequently monitored by the Council to ensure compliance by the developers. A written response had been received on 12th August from the Executive Director for Place confirming that Planning Conditions were not monitored by the Council. Therefore, please could the Executive Member for Planning answer the following points:
Ø Some planning conditions could be very technical in nature. Does the Executive Member believe that it was acceptable to simply rely on the public to ‘police’ planning conditions bearing in mind that planning permissions affecting local communities were very often granted subject to multiple planning conditions being adheredto?
Ø The Council apparently had a system of monitoring in place for S106 agreements with staff resources allocated for this purpose. Would you agree to produce a feasibility paper for a similar system to be implemented for the monitoring of planning conditions and produce a recommendation for consideration byCabinet?
There was no statutory requirement for a Local Planning Authority to monitor planning conditions. The Authority was required to keep a copy of any S106 Agreement and make these publicly available on its planning register.
It was also required to publish an infrastructure funding statement at least annually. These requirements, together with the need to ensure S106 obligations were spent within a certain period or they were lost, makes it necessary to have a robust monitoring system for S106 obligations.
The onus was on developers to ensure they complied with conditions. Many conditions, especially those that were more technical in nature, were generally formally discharged through the Discharge of Conditions process.
The Council determined around 1700 applications within the last calendar year and the resources required to monitor all the conditions on these applications would be high. This would outstrip the resources currently utilised to enforce conditions when a breach of condition was identified. It should also be noted that where there was a breach of control, enforcement powers do exist to rectify these, there was also the ability for a developer to seek to modify conditions and the Local Authority would also have to take a view as to whether it was expedient to enforce against a breach of condition having regard to the nature of that breach and its impact.
The Director of Planning and Building Control had been asked to prepare a paper on the matter which could then be formally considered.
· Supplementary Question:
Councillor Atterwill had noted the response that planning conditions were not monitored by the Council but asked if there had been any breaches over the last five years and whether they had been recorded, challenged and enforced.
The Leader asked Councillor Atterwill if he would put that question to him again in writing after the meeting so that an accurate response could be provided.
· Question received from Councillor Roger Atterwill to the Executive Member of Governance:
According to the Council’s standard email disclaimer “Emails sent from and received by employees of Breckland Council may be monitored”. Please could it be confirmed if the same email disclaimer applied to individual Councillor emails and if so, who the individuals were who were authorised to carry out this monitoring for the Council, and what specifically were they monitoring and who within the Council was authorised to have access to any subsequent data held?
The Council’s standard email disclaimer applied to Members and Officers alike. Monitoring of emails would only take place within the context of a specific investigation activity (e.g. in the event of disciplinary action, such as misuse of data and/or I.T equipment). Any investigation would only be conducted following suitable professional or management consideration (such as the HR Team), who would authorise one or more individual Officers to carry out the monitoring for a specific investigation. Only those individuals who were assigned to support a particular investigation would have access to the data concerned and data would be managed in accordance with data protection law and the Council’s own policies. No monitoring of emails was performed on an ongoing or proactive basis.
· Supplementary Question:
Councillor Atterwill stated that the response that he had received said that it applied to Members and Officers alike - that emails could be monitored. He felt that this disclaimer was not actually correct, as his understanding was that Councillors were not actually employees. The reason he had raised this stemmed from a concern received from a resident doing case work; therefore, when it clearly stated that emails were being monitored, he wanted to be able to assure that person that email correspondence between him, as a Member of the Council and residents, was in fact private. He felt that the disclaimer needed to be updated to make it clear that it applied to Members and employees. The response had not stated who in the organisation would make that decision. It had stated however, that it was Human Resources who dealt with this but as a Councillor he was not aware that he came under HR. Therefore, he wanted to know who in the organisation, the actual name of the person, who would authorise such monitoring of email activity and who the persons were who would carry out that monitoring.
Councillor Atterwill did not expect an immediate response but would appreciate further clarification on that point. This supplementary question would also be put in writing to the Member concerned to make this point clear.
The Executive Director, Strategy & Governance said that she would be happy to provide a written response; however, she had not seen sight of the original response sent to Councillor Atterwill. Members were assured however, that it would be herself, as the Council’s Monitoring Officer who would monitor Members’ emails and that it would be HR for Officers. She apologised to Councillor Atterwill for the slightly incorrect information contained in the disclaimer which would be changed accordingly.
· Question received from Councillor Harry Clarke to the Executive Member of Planning:
The Government were consulting on Planning changes, through the White Paper “Planning for the Future”, and also “Changes to the current planning system “(different national deadlines apply).
Councillor Clarke was particularly concerned about two aspects - the impact under the White Paper on the funding and future viability of Social Housing Providers, and also the temporary (at present) proposal to increase the threshold where affordable housing was required from developers to a trigger of 40- 50 units.
As a Dereham Councillor he was already concerned at infrastructure issues, without a projected 74.8% increase in housing allocations across Breckland of an extra 1,070 houses to be built per annum. Specifically:
Ø if Breckland Council makes a formal response to either of the consultation documents, would this be viewable by Members?
Ø would any response from the Council be published publicly?
Ø would the commentary prepared by Planning Officers on both papers for Members be published publicly?
Ø would the Council be engaging at all in any consultations with the Councils current Social / Housing providers?
As had been correctly identified there were two consultation papers currently being considered in relation to changes to the Planning System. These papers have different closing dates with the Changes to the Planning System paper closing on 1st October and the Planning for the Future White Paper closing on 29th October.
Members had seen a full presentation on both these papers at a Briefing held on 15th September 2020 and had been given the opportunity to submit comments via the Planning Policy inbox to enable their comments to be taken into account when finalising the consultation response.
The following comments were made in respect of the above questions:
Ø Given the tight timescales for the first consultation response this would be considered by the Executive and submitted on behalf of the Council. The concerns of Members would be reflected in the consultation response. In relation to the second consultation this would be presented to the Executive with an invitation to Members to attend and comment on the response.
Ø There was no reason why the response should not be made public after submission.
Ø The presentation by Officers to Members was for their information and to stimulate debate. Given that status it was not considered to beappropriate to make this public.
Ø Officers, in preparing their response, had consulted with the HousingStrategy Team. Independent Social Housing Providers would be able to respond separately to the consultation process.
· Supplementary Question:
Councillor Clarke wanted to ask a question in respect of the response to the final question above but as the Executive Member for Planning had sent his apologies, a written request would be sent instead. Councillor Clarke also asked if a virtual meeting could be arranged with himself, the Executive Member for Planning and the Leader to discuss how Social Housing Providers in Breckland could be affected by the Government’s White Paper and the Affordable Homes Programme, as he was aware that these could have an impact on funding and sustainability issues.
The Leader said that he would be happy to discuss these matters further with Councillor Clarke once the written request had been received.
· Question received from Councillor Tim Birt to the Executive Member for Customer Engagement:
The need for a Carbon Audit to start measuring the Council’s carbon emissions had been raised in January when funding was deemed to not be a problem.
It was extremely disappointing to now learn that the Council could not undertake a full Carbon Audit because the relevant organisations were busy carrying out audits for other Councils. Applying for the LGA Net Zero Innovation Programme was a noble aspiration and he hoped that the Council succeeded but there were only ten places so the competition would be strong. Many believed that the Council needed to show greater urgency rather than putting all efforts in one direction, also alternative solutions needed to be pursued.
1. What alternatives solutions have been considered?
2. Why had the Council been unable to quantify its carbon consumption using simple tools and existing consumption data?
3. Had the LGA Carbon Accounting tool been reviewed?
4. What would be the nett carbon saving per year from the Council’s switch to a renewable electricity supplier (both for Breckland and the UK as a whole)?
Further to his last update at Cabinet, Councillor Sherwood was pleased to report that the Council had been approached by several providers who were keen to work with Breckland on this opportunity. He was pleased to announce that the opportunity would be awarded in the next few days but obviously as this formed part of an active procurement exercise, he was unable to disclose the full details at this time, but it was his intention to do so in the next week.
Regarding your question about using simple tools and existing consumption data, the Council had considered using these but the majority did not enable those emissions to be identified, this sat under Scope 3 of the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol which was an internationally recognised accounting tool for this, to the level that could be understood. As this was the first time Breckland was undertaking a carbon audit and developing a carbon management plan it was important to ensure that this was done from a solid evidence base which was why, on this occasion, the Cabinet had felt that engaging a recognised and respected expert/organisation to conduct this piece of work was fundamental. This would not be the only time the Council would need to carry out a carbon audit as this would need to be carried out again in the future to measure the Council’s success. Going forward, and once a robust baseline had been established the intention was to use tools like the LGA Carbon Accounting tool.
The switch to green energy would save the Council an estimated 357.55 tonnes of carbon per year. To provide some context to this figure, many of the carbon think tanks placed annual personal carbon usage at 10-12 tonnes, this would mean that the estimated equivalent of 30-36 people’s tonnage per year would be saved.
· Supplementary Question:
· Councillor Birt had noted from the responses provided above that a contractor/service provider would be appointed by the Council to carry out a carbon audit and he hoped that further information on this matter would be announced shortly.
He had also asked if any tools were being considered such as the LGA’s Carbon Accounting Tool but the response that had been provided stated that this tool did not sit under the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol. Councillor Birt could not recall any requirement under the Council’s declaration of Climate Emergency for that to be a condition. It was also stated that the LGA Tool would be used going forward and he could not see any reason why such a tool could not be used already, there was no reason to wait as this could be carried out simultaneously with any external audit.
He asked for clarification on what had been reported in respect of the switch to renewable energy saving an estimated 357.55 tonnes of carbon which he felt was a good estimate. He knew that this saving was merely an accounting function as the Council had not actually reflected how the electricity was produced or whether it had reduced its consumption. The Executive Member for Customer Engagement had then compared this with personal carbon usage of 10 to 12 tonnes per year per person. This number he felt was widely different to the normal per capita figure and was very similar to the CO2 capita figure which then begged the question - was that very precise 357.55 tonnes a carbon saving or was it a carbon dioxide equivalent saving?
The Executive Member for Customer Engagement & Member Champion for Breckland Sustainability Strategy thanked Councillor Birt for his question and comments. He felt that the details included in the written response were clear but would respond to each comment/question in order.
He was pleased to announce that a company had very recently been appointed to carry out the Council’s carbon audit. Full details would be sent out to all Members accordingly. This was a very good company who worked with local Councils across the country and had a very good track record so he hoped that Members would be satisfied with this decision.
In relation to the figures, in respect of the tonnage saved of carbon per year, the said company had been asked for such details, and the specific questions that had been asked by Cllr Birt would also be put forward.
· Question received from Councillor David Wickerson to the Executive Member for Contracts & Assets:
Would the Finance Officer please advise whether the Council had conducted a Commercial Asset Portfolio review, previously valued at £45 million, in the light of the impact of Covid 19. If so, could Members be advised of the results of said review?
In addition could the Executive Member for Contracts and Assets please provide a report to Members on the current status of the Council’s financial arrangements with Barnham Broom following the reduction in the rental income, and to include confirmation as to whether this investment was still considered viable and beneficial to the Breckland taxpayer?
The Executive Member for Contracts & Assets advised that the Council’s commercial property portfolio was valued annually with a valuation date of 31 March in accordance with local government accountancy requirements. Therefore, the last valuation had been undertaken 31 March 2020. The property assets that the Council denoted as commercial property used for investment return as at 31 March 2020 had a total value of £48.8m.
At that last valuation, the Valuer highlighted the risk of the impact of Covid and advised that the property values should be kept under review. This was followed up in July with the Valuer who confirmed that the valuations were still valid, there had been no significant decrease but the impact of Covid was difficult to assess. These 31 March 2020 valuations, including the potential impact of Covid, had also been considered by the Council’s external auditors, Ernst & Young (EY) as part of the Statement of Accounts audit prior to the accounts being allowed to be signed off at the Governance & Audit Committee. If EY determined that any of the values were significantly mis-stated this would be highlighted in their audit report and valuations amended accordingly. We would next be revisiting the valuations in February 2021 under the normal annual re-valuation exercise.
Members would also be aware that there had been a presentation on the commercial property portfolio at the Overview and Scrutiny Commission meeting held on 16 July 2020 – the purpose of which was to provide an update on the portfolio in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In respect of Barnham Broom question, the information that could be shared regarding commercial property transactions in the public domain was limited due to commercial confidentiality relating to the disclosure of certain information that could prejudice a business’ trading performance.
The hospitality and leisure sectors have been hit particularly hard with Covid-19 and as the business operating from this asset was in that sector it was possibly the case for this business.
As Members would also be aware, the Council decided to review its commercial relationship with the tenant of this asset in October 2018. Since then, there had been no further changes so the Council still owned the asset as it had done since the purchase with the same tenant. At this point in time there had not been any agreement to vary any rental payment obligations for this tenant in light of Covid. The tenant was in contact with the Council Officers on a regular basis.
Based on the current agreed contractual arrangements with the tenant the investment was viable and provided a positive return thus a benefit to the taxpayer.
· Supplementary Question:
Councillor Wickerson thanked the Executive Member for Contracts & Assets for his response to his questions on Barnham Broom and the commercial assets and as his follow up question was quite detailed, he would put it in writing for a subsequent response.
· Question received from Councillor Philip Morton to Executive Member for Customer Engagement:
It was now nearly a year since a Climate Change Emergency was declared. The Leader then called upon the Council to develop its commitment and implementation of an overarching and achievable sustainable Breckland Strategy. This would set out the policies, strategies, implementation plans and resourcing requirements to embed the values of sustainability into the Council’s services, delivery and operations. The Council would work with key stakeholders across the District, including Norfolk County Council, neighbouring local authorities, the Local Enterprise Partnership, businesses and of course, its residents who could contribute to a Sustainable Breckland Strategy. Members had been assured that Cabinet would be discussing this Strategy early in 2020.
To expedite meaningful progress, he asked the Cabinet Member for Sustainability if a Cross Party Working Group could be created where the Breckland Strategy outlined by the Leader could be discussed and developed in a transparent cross-party approach?
Members were asked to recall that in February of this year, Councillor Sherwood stated his intention that a one off forum for Members would be arranged to allow all those that wished to participate to feed into the development process. As he had previously stated the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic had meant that the Council’s resources had rightly been focused on supporting its residents and businesses through the pandemic and the ongoing recovery from it. This had unfortunately meant that a number of Council’s core objectives had been delayed whilst resources were directed elsewhere. He was pleased to say; however, that the Council was now in a position to hold a one off Members Environment and Climate Change Forum which would enable Members to scrutinise and input into the Council’s proposed strategy and delivery plan.
· Supplementary question:
Councillor Morton had suggested that a cross party working group be established for sustainability and climate change to speed up progress and to develop the strategy to implementation. There had been a six-month period prior to Covid when a carbon audit could have rolled out and he was sure that with the establishment of a cross party working group actions would have been taken. A one-off Climate Emergency Forum would also be useful along the lines that had been adopted for the Covid emergency. He asked what assurances Councillor Sherwood could provide that more rapid progress would be made in developing and delivering the strategy.
Councillor Sherwood thanked Councillor Morton for his further question and comments. He felt that it was important to advise what had already been stated earlier that it was a very difficult situation that the Country had found itself in, in respect of this national pandemic including the re-deployment of staff. Many areas of work within the Council were extremely important and climate change was one of those which had been recognised. He hoped that Councillor Morton would be pleased that he had already indicated that all Councillors would be invited to the Forum to enable them to contribute and have input and scrutinise the policies going forward. This Forum would be held at the end of October and would allow for a full and open discussion and Members would have the opportunity to have input into this on-going policy. He himself was extremely disappointed that there had been delays but he was very comfortable that the Council was working hard to ensure that this was right for residents of Breckland.