Leader's Announcements (Agenda item 7)
To receive a verbal update from Councillor Sam Chapman-Allen, Leader of the Council.
The Leader made the following announcements:
2020-2021 had been a period dominated by the international pandemic. It had and continued to have an impact on people’s lives around the world, and Breckland had been no exception. Those lives that had been lost and those who had worked and volunteered tirelessly to support and protect us all must never be forgotten.
This was a situation that no-one wanted to find themselves in but he had been very proud of this council and how members and officers had tackled this challenge.
Throughout the pandemic, the Council’s top priorities, had been clear and unwavering protecting the lives and livelihoods of its residents.
Breckland Council had coordinated a massive relief effort over the last year to help individuals who had been impacted by the pandemic.
This had included releasing almost £20,000 in grants to individuals facing the greatest financial hardship, delivering 200 food parcels to people self-isolating or unable to do their own food shopping, providing significant funding to local foodbanks, and carrying out in excess of 3,000 welfare calls to check-in with some of Breckland’s most vulnerable residents during their times of greatest need.
The newly recruited team of Covid Support Officers had been working across the District to provide a reassuring presence, providing advice, and investigating reports of any instances when safety guidance may not have been followed.
Most recently, a Covid Safe Scheme had been launched, that recognised businesses in the District that had put in place measures and working practices to help protect their staff and customers from coronavirus.
Officers had been inspecting Breckland businesses to assess their anti-covid measures, including the provision of protective equipment such as screens and masks, hand sanitiser for staff and customers, and opportunities to maintain social distancing.
The Leader was delighted to announce that the first set of businesses had now been assessed and issued their covid stickers, and he thanked these businesses, and all those across the district who had worked so hard to keep people safe during these challenging times.
The pandemic had hit local businesses hard, and in response the Council had now distributed around £50m in local and national grant funding to help them weather the storm.
This council had also put significant resource, time and effort into helping business-owners navigate the emerging legislation and supporting them to make changes to operate safely, protect customers, protect their staff, and protect local jobs.
£2m had been set aside to help businesses recover from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. The Spring Back support included:
· A Shop Front Improvement Scheme to help pay for a lick of paint or to completely replace a shopfront to make local shops more attractive.
· Grants worth up to £5k to help businesses invest in equipment to enable them to trade safely, from extra protective equipment and screens to a marquee or outdoor seating to support social distancing.
· Money and training to help business trade digitally, including new payment systems, websites and online advertising.
BUSINESS AS USUAL
Aside from the pandemic response, and despite the challenges and necessary resource it had taken, the last financial year had also seen significant schemes that were hugely important for the District.
These included adopting an inaugural Sustainability Strategy, that pledged for the Council to be carbon neutral by 2035.
An additional £0.5m had been ring-fenced, on top of the hundreds of thousands the Council already spends annually, to deliver a range of ‘green’ schemes. This included £100k for a community grants scheme to support grassroot environmental projects, £100k for tree planting and similar schemes, and £200k to make the Council’s buildings more efficient including switching to a green energy tariff.
Work had begun on converting the former day unit on Elm Road in Thetford into a new temporary accommodation centre for the homeless. The project represented an investment of around £1.8m and would mean that expert support could be provided in new, high-quality temporary emergency accommodation to single adults, couples, and families who need help.
£40,000 had been released to support the launch of the District’s first community supermarket, in Thetford. Since its launch at the end of last year, it had gone from strength to strength and had proved to be a real asset to people in the area, helping those people who were struggling to make ends meet, to access good quality food and essentials at reduced prices.
Support continued to Breckland’s market towns through its Market Towns Initiative, that had ringfenced £150k per town, over three years to support projects which addressed each of their specific needs and challenges.
Hemingway Design, urban regeneration experts had been commissioned to support the Council’s vision work for the future of Thetford, including engagement with local people to help them shape the development of the town.
More recently, ‘Future Breckland’ Town Delivery Plans project had been launched that would see strategic plans drawn up for each of the towns to help make the case for national funding and align various organisations under one identified vision. This work would shortly get underway focused on Dereham, before engagement opportunities were held in other towns over the course of the coming year.
All this had been achieved over the last 12 months, despite the various challenges including the resignation of the Chief Executive, a strategic review following a decade-long successful strategic partnership that was now coking to a close, and a restructure of the senior management team.
What did the next 12 months have in store?
A balanced budget for 2021/22 had already been set that protected frontline services, and whilst other councils may face cuts, Breckland Council would continue to invest in projects to help its towns and surrounding villages to thrive, ring-fencing money to help vulnerable residents, supporting businesses to spring back from coronavirus, and expanding a number of Council teams.
Extra resource was being put into certain Teams within the Council focusing on tackling fly tipping – an area where this Council had already seen great success in tracking down these fly-tippers and handing out many fines - business support, Covid-19, and animal welfare issues.
The £1m+ ringfenced for the Inspiring Communities programme would continue to be honoured, supporting residents susceptible to loneliness in later life, drug gangs, domestic abuse, or poor mental health.
£150k had been set aside for each of the District's five market towns, over three years, to fund projects to help them and their surrounding villages to thrive. The Sustainable Swaffham initiative had recently been launched, aiming to make the town the most environmentally friendly in the county.
£500k had been committed to deliver actions tackling climate change, as mentioned earlier.
£17m would be brought in from national and regional funding to improve local electricity supplies, which would enable housing and business growth – particularly in the south of the district.
Residents’ bins would now be collected by a brand-new fleet of collection vehicles, which formed part of the new waste collection contract. That, in itself, had been a unique 3-way commissioning in partnership with peers to the north and west of the county. It also included an enhanced cleaning service in the towns and villages, as well as being able to offer a waste collection service to Breckland’s private businesses for the very first time.
This Council had also launched online video appointments and evening sessions for residents to speak to Council staff at a more convenient time particularly if they needed a helping hand with applications or accessing support.
Aside from all the very many projects and initiatives already mentioned, in the last year this Council had also dealt with bomb disposal in the District, making-safe dangerous buildings on the verge of collapse and responding to aviation flu.
This council remained in a very strong position and remained fully focused and fully committed to meeting whatever challenges came its way. Breckland Council would continue to do absolutely everything in its power to make the lives of local people better, to keep them safe and protect their jobs and businesses.
Questions were then invited.
Councillor Jermy thanked the Leader for the significant amount of information provided. He took the opportunity to ask a question in respect of Covid and virtual meetings and asked the Leader if he agreed that the Government’s inability to schedule sufficient parliamentary time and the recent loss of the High Court challenge had resulted in the Government failing to support local government. This decision had decreased the rights of residents and of Councillors to scrutinise and hold to account the Councils work with additional costs generated for socially distancing meetings and in Breckland’s case democratic meetings cancelled or postponed that could have easily been held on-line.
The Leader advised that local government would always roll up its sleeves and take on any challenge regardless of what it was. Breckland Council was one of 100s of councils across the country who had embraced the technology to ensure that it was able to undertake its democratic mandate. Nothing had stopped, and at no point throughout the pandemic had Breckland failed to deliver or failed for any decisions to be made or any scrutiny to be undertaken.
He had been disappointed at the High Court’s ruling but that did not mean that democracy would not continue. He was pleased that all the chairman of all the Committees had engaged with the Democratic Services Team and was pleased that this Council was moving ahead and looking forward to the 21 June, step 4 of the recovery road map. He was also pleased that this Council had once again proactively invested in its Council Chamber ensuring that it was able to livestream its meetings. No meetings would take place during May, but democracy would not stop and following step 3 of the recovery road map residents and businesses could go out and enjoy the community safely. He would ensure that planning permissions and licensing inspections were still taking place, taxis were still being licensed, housing applications were still being undertaken and the revenues and benefits team were still open; therefore, as far as residents were concerned business would continue as normal.