Questions without Notice under Standing Order No 7 (Agenda item 8)
Councillor Crane addressed her question to Councillor Hewett, the Executive Member for Contracts & Assets.
Prior to Covid-19, the Council had agreed to change the way it worked, and she asked if the plans in respect of the Worksmart 20:20 initiative, following the impact of the pandemic, were now on hold.
In response, Councillor Hewett advised that understandably, a number of initiatives had been put on hold as the offices were closed and staff had been re-located and re-directed to frontline essential services that had been described in the presentation held earlier in the meeting.
He felt that in many ways, the speed of reaction and the ability to change, in every aspect in what the Council did, had been a testament to the resilience of staff, the focus of the leadership team and the underlying ambitions of Worksmart 20:20.
He was delighted to announce that works to the Breckland Conference Centre, which it would now be called, using local builders and specialists had continued at pace over the last couple of months and the new Anglia, Norfolk and Dereham Rooms would be ready to resume full face to face or hybrid face to face on-line meetings as soon as legislation allowed. Members would see a smart new reception area, new furniture, which was flexible and adaptable, particularly for paying users, new quiet air conditioning and air extraction systems, and along with ‘state of the art’ IT systems meant that meetings would be accessible and could be enjoyed by everyone.
Focus was now on the first floor of the Elizabeth House, creating an environment for the Council’s hardworking staff which he felt would be exciting, vibrant and ready for the future – in many ways, reflecting the legacy of the departing Chief Executive. All in the Worksmart Steering Group, that included Members and Officers, were keen to see this progress and create a Council that met the needs of Members, Officers, residents and businesses alike to allow everyone in Breckland to thrive.
Councillor Kybird directed his question to Councillor Sherwood, the Executive Member for Customer Engagement & Member Champion for Breckland Sustainability Strategy.
In respect of the Climate Emergency, he welcomed the appointment to carry out the Council’s carbon audit and he asked if there were any plans to recruit specialist staff to help deliver this audit and the actions thereafter as necessary.
Councillor Sherwood knew that Councillor Kybird was extremely passionate about the environment and his input and comments received over the past few months had been incredibly useful and he thanked him for this information and the areas that he had highlighted.
He was delighted to announce that the Council would be recruiting a fixed term Officer and the advertisement for that post would soon be published. This clearly highlighted the commitment of this Council and once this audit had been completed, there would be a full-time Officer who would be responsible for pushing this policy forward and assisting the Council with what the Councillors had chosen to do.
Prior to any further questions being asked, Councillor Jermy, the Leader of the Labour Group, raised a point of Order in respect of Standing Order No. 7; in particular, section 7.7 and reminded the meeting that the Leader of the largest opposition group should be afforded the right to ask the first question.
The Executive Manager for Governance apologised for the oversight and confirmed that the order for questions should begin with the Leader of the largest opposition group, followed by the leaders of other opposition groups in the order of their respective group size.
Councillor Jermy directed his question to Councillor Webb, the Executive Member for Health & Housing.
Homelessness was a significant concern in Breckland and with the colder weather approaching and the impact that this would have on these individuals would be more severe. He asked Councillor Webb what the current situation was in respect of homelessness in the District and what steps were going to be taken in advance of the winter months.
Councillor Webb advised that this question was quite timely as the Council had just received some additional Government funding which would assist with this challenge. The amount received was just under £115k which would help provide emergency temporary accommodation for rough sleepers. The funding would also be put towards appointing a Housing Support & Resettlement Officer to help rough sleepers to move on to more permanent accommodation and gain employment.
Since the Covid outbreak, the number of rough sleepers in the District had been halved and she felt that the Team involved with this work should be congratulated. Unfortunately, there would always be homelessness issues and this funding would continue to help the Council provide assistance and guidance in future.
Councillor Atterwill directed his question to the Leader.
He asked the Leader if he felt that the Government’s initiative to introduce Covid Marshalls was a good idea and as such would he be seeking to introduce them in Breckland.
In response the Leader advised that every council across the country would have a different view and opinion, but in the case of Breckland, the introduction of Marshalls would not be progressed, and he understood that none of his Norfolk colleagues would be either.
Cllr Birt also directed his question to the Leader which was in relation to Breckland Standards system
A formal complaint had been made against him by the Chairman in respect of not being appropriately dressed and not using the correct corporate background during a Zoom meeting.
He had been notified that four formal complaints had been made against him but at the time of that notification none had been received. He felt there were significant problems with the Council’s standards procedure and explained that it had taken a further two weeks before the Chairman’s complaint surfaced and another week before he received the second similar complaint.
He felt that there were procedural errors including staff being unaware of a relevant protocol.
He had been accused of criticising officers and, as a consequence, breaching the Code of Conduct. Councillor Birt made it clear that he had, and was permitted to, criticise the Council. He was not criticising individual officers as all were working extremely hard in difficult conditions.
Councillor Birt considered that Breckland Standards was systemically failing and had been politically manipulated and he asked the Leader if he would urgently implement an external review so that residents of Breckland could have confidence that both District and Parish councillors were accountable against a functioning fair and proper system.
The Leader advised that he was unable to comment on any complaints against any individual. Councillor Birt had been notified privately in relation to this complaint and it was his prerogative to make it public. In relation to his concerns about the complaints process and the standards process, the Monitoring Officer would consider his concerns and determine if any particular course of action was necessary.
Councillor James asked if Councillor Bambridge, the Executive Member for Environmental Services & Public Protection would join her in thanking the Officer for the successful pursuit of fly-tippers. She had received positive feedback from the residents within Castle Ward in Thetford and asked if there was any educational information available to support and enhance this invaluable work. She also asked how the receipts from these fines were being spent or re-invested.
Councillor Bambridge was pleased that this question had been asked as it gave him the opportunity to first point out that many updates had been provided in the earlier presentation as well as the chance to thank all Officers involved for their support despite them being directly involved in Covid matters. He also felt that thanks needed to be conveyed to the whole of the Environmental Services Team who had worked very effectively in dealing with fly-tippers and littering in Breckland.
Many fines, as well as fixed penalty notices had been issued. Certain areas were going to be targeted for a letter drop and posters would also be circulated within the District - obviously in various languages and it was hoped that this work would be implemented early in October. Other matters being considered were an increase to penalties and further scope for the Council to take necessary actions against fly-tippers or victims of fly-tipping. Cooperation with other bodies was also being increased. Members were informed that the two main areas that would be targeted were Thetford and Watton but other areas that had such problems would also be considered.
Councillor Bambridge advised that the Council was also considering increasing the Enforcement Team to assist with these matters, this would hopefully, allow more work to be taken on going forward to improve the District.
Councillor Duigan directed his question to the Executive Member responsible for mobile phones, Councillor Suggitt, Executive Member for Governance.
He asked if advice or any instructions could be provided to Members on how to download the Covid App.
In response, Members were informed that advice would be sought from the IT Officers and sent out to Members accordingly.
Councillor Gilbert asked the Leader if he had discovered a mistake that the Council had made several years ago that was affecting many people and asked if this could be rectified.
The Leader invited Councillor Gilbert to provide further information so that he could understand the nature of the concern.
Councillor Brindle asked Councillor Bambridge a question on the environment in respect of the river systems in Thetford. Currently, they were all in a poor condition due to lack of rain, over extraction and fallen trees and he had grave concerns with the Little Ouse which was a chalk stream and therefore very delicate. He knew of an all -party group that had recently been formed to look at chalk streams. Their first meeting had been held very recently and he asked Councillor Bambridge if he could make representations to this Group on behalf of the Council to establish what could be done and make the necessary improvements to the river system in Thetford and the nearby villages.
Councillor Bambridge asked Councillor Brindle if this could be discussed further after the meeting. He was aware of this newly formed Group and he was also aware that over 80% of the UK’s main chalk streams were located in East Anglia This was something that was of great interest to him but he was aware of other bodies that looked after the Little Ouse which could be easily be contacted through the Environment Agency. He also reminded Members that environmental issues were being dealt with by Councillor Sherwood as the Council’s Sustainability Strategy Champion.
Councillor Dowling directed her question to the Leader.
Over the past few months, she had volunteered as a telephone befriender calling vulnerable residents as part of a welfare check. It was clear that there were many people in the Breckland area who were isolated and very lonely. With Covid-19 showing no immediate end this would inevitably continue although many regular support groups remained closed or virtual. She asked what the Council could do to ensure that residents, who did not or could not access technology, were not left behind in the months ahead.
The Leader advised that throughout the pandemic many lessons had been learnt as to how to support those considered most vulnerable and for those in self-isolation. Breckland Council was continuing to work with partners across Norfolk such as the Norfolk Community Foundation and Age UK to establish how, through the winter period, those most vulnerable residents could be supported that were not reliant on modern technology. The ‘befriending’ telephone service had been immensely successful, and Council Members were able to volunteer if they so wished with training sessions being organised.
He asked Councillor Dowling to contact him after the meeting to discuss this further.
The Chairman pointed out that several Members were already in contact with vulnerable residents in their areas and she herself, made such calls once a week, and she had found that most of the time, all these residents wanted was to hear a friendly voice on the other end of the phone.
As many Members were Market Town Champions, Councillor Colman asked Councillor Robinson, the Executive Member for Community, Leisure & Culture if he agreed that the recent successful High Street Heritage Action Zone bid would be a great opportunity to build on the work that this Council already did to champion its market towns. He looked forward to working with Councillor Robinson and colleagues within the Ward to deliver what could be an exciting project for Swaffham.
Councillor Robinson welcomed the above comments and agreed that this would be a fantastic opportunity but felt it would be better to respond to Councillor Colman’s question when the report was discussed under the next item on the agenda.