Questions without Notice under Standing Order No 7 (Agenda item 9)
Councillor Jermy directed his question to Councillor Bambridge, the Executive Member for Environmental Services & Public Protection. He referred to one of the last meetings pre-Covid where a significant decision had been reached in respect of the new Grounds Maintenance Contract for Serco.
He recalled that in the Cabinet and the Overview & Scrutiny Commission meetings and indeed the Full Council meeting which all took place on the same day, all Members were reassured that the service provided would be improved, specifically the shredding of litter by Serco grasscutters would end. However, rather than any improvements being made, the situation had worsened and recently it was not the usual cans and glass that were being merrily mowed and torn to shreds but facemasks and two dead pigeons near to a local school. He asked the Executive Member what he would be doing to enforce the rules within the Serco contract to stop and prevent the shredding of litter from occurring.
Councillor Bambridge stated that this was the first that he had heard of this issue, and asked Councillor Jermy if he could send him an email explaining where these incidences were occurring, and he would follow this up and subsequent action would be taken.
Councillor Birt congratulated the Chairman on his appointment. He had two questions to ask, the first of which was directed to the Leader. He referred to page 9 of the agenda pack, a previous question that he had asked of the Leader and the information that should have been forthcoming that had still not been received. He asked the Leader when he could expect this information in respect of the value of the New Homes Bonus.
The other matter relating to documents that he had previously requested had also not been received. Two responses from Legal Services dated 8 April stated that they would speak to a Director about getting access to these documents but again these had not transpired. Councillor Birt also mentioned a quote in the Constitution which was at variance with the Legal Framework. He could only assume that he was being unlawfully denied access and asked if the Monitoring Officer should be involved with this.
The Leader assured Councillor Birt that he had sent an email on 5 March in response to his question about the New Homes Bonus and if this email had not been received this matter should be taken up with the IT department. Regarding the documentation that was being requested, he would take that away as an action from this meeting but pointed out that no Member was ever prevented from receiving information requested via their Breckland IT equipment and their Breckland email address.
Councillor Colman asked Councillor Hewett, the Executive Member for Contracts & Assets for an update on the sale of the Green Britain Centre in Swaffham.
Councillor Hewett said that he could at some extent without revealing any private & confidential information. Members were informed that just last week the Council had agreed and finalised terms with the bidding organisation which themselves had been agreed by the Board of the bidding organisation for the Green Britain Centre. Unfortunately, their staff needed to be informed before any further announcements could be made. Due diligence, due process and the sale had been completed and he would inform Members of the outcome as soon as he could.
Councillor Morton congratulated the Chairman on his appointment.
He also congratulated Councillor Sherwood, the Executive Member for Customer Engagement and the Member Champion for Climate Change on the Breckland Sustainable Strategy report that had recently been adopted at the Council meeting in February. An organisation called Eunomia had been commissioned to conduct a carbon audit and he asked how this timeline was going to be set up and how it was going to be monitored and reported back to Members.
Councillor Sherwood thanked Councillor Morton for his question and the various correspondence that had been on-going between them. These matters were being looked at within the scale of all the Council’s key performance indicators and would be forthcoming. He had not got an exact timeline, but he would get back to Councillor Morton via email with a more definitive time.
Councillor Dowling directed her question to Councillor Bambridge. She pointed out that significant concern had been raised by local residents in Thetford about the felling of mature trees linked to new housing growth in the town and asked what more could be done to prevent so many trees from being cut down and was it right that these trees were being felled in the nesting season.
Councillor Bambridge wanted to know who was cutting down these trees as it seemed more of a planning issue and asked Councillor Dowling to send him an email containing all relevant information and he would get back to her with a response. Councillor Dowling advised that it was assumed that it was Anglian Water along with various different agencies who were felling the trees.
Councillor Brindle congratulated Councillor Brame on his appointment. He asked the Leader if he had seen the Thetford Facebook entries where there had been a great deal of anger and frustration in respect of Serco not emptying full litter bins. This litter was then blown about and scattered around the bins. He knew that the Leader was aware of this problem and he had been grateful for the responses from Officers that he had received thus far but he hoped that the Leader could reassure everyone that Breckland and Serco would stay on top of this issue particularly as times would get busier during the summer season.
The Leader stated that he and the Waste Team were completely aware of the concerns of residents and Members. This weekend being the bank holiday weekend his message was two-fold – the first was to offer reassurance that extra capacity would be provided in those hotspots and subsequently extra temporary bins would be provided in that locality and additional staff would be working at the weekend as extra support and the routine for those bins being emptied had now increased. Secondly, he urged everyone across the whole of the District to take their litter home if bins in the area were at full capacity.
Councillor Terry also congratulated Councillor Brame on his appointment. He asked the Leader a question about small sports clubs that provided youngsters with so many opportunities. Opportunities to get some fresh air and forge new friendships many of which could last a lifetime, but it was the impact these clubs had off the pitch that could not be overstated. In many cases they were quite simply the life blood of their communities which was why it was devastating to learn that over 10% or 4000 clubs nationwide had stated that they would struggle to survive the next 12 months. For too many clubs, Covid-19 had been the final straw. The irony of it all was that this pandemic was slowly wiping out a resource that most parents said that they valued for the physical and mental health benefits. Two of Thetford’s major sports clubs, the football club and the neighbouring cricket club were both in a precarious position with both clubs needing funding to upgrade their facilities or risk being demoted to lower leagues that would further reduce their revenue. He welcomed the funding opportunities available to clubs through the Inspiring Communities fund but to access this and indeed other funds such as the lottery funding, skills were needed to complete often complicated application forms. He would be grateful if the Leader could confirm what support was available from Breckland Council for such Groups to apply for funding.
The Leader thanked Councillor Terry for his question. He was pleased that this Government had committed over £195m to support sport and physical activities throughout the pandemic for recovery and this had been disseminated through many organisations whether that was Sports England, the English Cricket Board or the RFU. He knew that two of the clubs and organisations that had been highlighted would be in contact with their local organisation whether that was the Football Federation or the England Cricket Board to work out what funding was available. This Council had had a long standing commitment to support community groups and community organisations and Councillor Terry had highlighted the Inspiring Communities funding that this Council had once again, unlike other Districts that were clawing back on grant funding, had committed over £100k from its budget to ensure that clubs such as the Cricket Club the Football Club, not just in Thetford that Councillor Terry had mentioned but sport clubs and activity clubs across the District could bid for those £5k. If any club was struggling to undertake the application, he urged them to contact the Breckland Team at email@example.com where they would be pleased to help. Likewise, he was sure that Members across this District were ready to assist with their iPads socially distanced and undertake that application form for them or with them so that no organisations went without that financial support they might need.
Councillor Borrett asked the Leader if he agreed with him that the commitment of an unsung group of staff who collected rubbish throughout the last year consistently day after day in conditions where at the beginning of this pandemic there was no understanding of the level or degree of risk which they put themselves in by turning up for work, so that they could provide the service to the residents of Breckland. The very fact that this was done without a hitch throughout the absolute worst of the pandemic and indeed all through the lockdowns, there had been a lot said about members of the health service who had given their commitment but he felt that there was an unappreciated group of people who in their commitment did what was not considered to be a very glamorous job but was absolutely vital to the quality of life of people across Breckland in having their rubbish removed and the towns, villages and the countryside in Norfolk. He felt that this group of people had not had the recognition that they deserved, and he applauded all the work that they had done.
The Leader wholeheartedly agreed With Councillor Borrett and felt that it had been remiss of him not to mentioned this before and wanted to put his thanks on record to the Waste Team across the District. He had recently had the pleasure of meeting many of the Waste Teams at the launch of the new Waste Contract at Elizabeth House in Dereham when the new waste lorries had arrived. Hearing some of the concerns that they had raised, that during the first part of the pandemic where everyone was told to stay at home, except health workers and themselves that they were going out regardless day in day out picking up waste and ensuring that communities were clean, vibrant places. As everyone begins to emerge from this pandemic, he hoped that no one would forget the last 14 months and what the Waste Teams had done, and who were still under immense pressure to ensure that the District remained a fantastic community for residents and businesses to thrive. He again wanted to put his thanks on record not just to the Breckland Officers but particularly to those within the Waste Team who had done a sterling job not just in the previous Serco reiteration but would continue to do so over the coming months and years ahead.
Councillor Harvey congratulated Councillor Brame on his appointment. He asked Councillor Bambridge if he was satisfied with the level of service from Serco in respect of staffing levels as he had received complaints about the lack of information received when an issue was reported and the lack of a response when the problem was cleared. There was also no facility to upload pictures to the website on the report forms so the lack of evidence could be detrimental. Furthermore, Breckland’s green bins were being left by bins for several days leading to animal disturbance and other people dumping even more rubbish.
The Leader responded to this question. He advised that the Council was reviewing the whole ‘Report It’ function on Breckland’s website and that work had recently been undertaken and there would be a facility to upload images using mobile data and residents were encouraged residents to continue to use this function on the website which would continue to be updated. He understood residents’ frustrations, and this was the third or fourth question raised in relation to waste, all matters had been heard loud and clear and the Team was responding to those concerns. He asked everyone not to forget these last 14 months, and if those Waste Teams, if they happened to be listening to this meeting, could be feeling a little unappreciated for the work that they had undertaken. The new contract would stand the test of time and Breckland Council was focused on that commitment and the Members and those residents who had raised these concerns directly with Councillor Bambridge, himself or with Senior Officers direct, had been directly submitted to the Serco Team.
Councillor Atterwill congratulated Councillor Brame on his appointment and he hoped that he would enjoy his year and he looked forward to hearing about all his adventures. He did not have a question to ask but he wanted to follow on from what Councillor Borrett had said and wanted to pay tribute to the Fly-tipping Team. He had been in close contact with the Team in respect of an on-going investigation in his parish and believed they were doing a great job for the District. It was very much appreciated by local residents and he wanted his thanks to be put on record.
Councillor Bambridge wanted to respond to Councillor Dowling’s earlier concern as he had been sent an email from a Planning Officer since that question had been asked. He was pleased to inform that the trees that were being cut down were under a planning consent granted in December 2020. These trees were being replaced with 10 Oak, 10 Field Maple and 10 Beech semi-mature trees all of which would be planted in the next appropriate season and all would be approximately 4 inches in circumference around the trunk.
Councillor Birt asked Councillor Suggitt, the Executive Member for Governance a question regarding the IT and what went wrong with the IT system that caused the cancellation of the Overview & Scrutiny Commission meeting and what measures had been put in place to avoid a reoccurrence.
In response, Councillor Suggitt explained that the issues that Members faced recently had not been a Breckland Council IT issue. This had been a global issue in respect of Microsoft and affected an Outlook update that consequently affected some of the IOS systems and Members were unable to access their diaries to retrieve the Zoom invite to that meeting. The IT Team had worked really hard and had been waiting for the ‘patch’ to come through from Microsoft that was not received until later on that evening and to make matters worse some of the updates did not go through automatically therefore the Team had to work quickly over a couple of days to contact the 19 Members that had been in touch with the IT Helpdesk to manually rectify these issues. No new measures had to be put in place but the IT Team was now looking to put together a text messaging service alongside the current email distribution list.
Councillor Jermy wanted to follow up on the Serco concerns and asked the Leader if he realised that these problems with Serco were not purely limited to bank holidays and was not a one-off - these were significant on-going issues. He also asked Councillor Borrett if he realised that it was precisely due to the welfare of the Serco Operators that Members were raising these concerns. It was detrimental to the Operators well-being when they were having to pick up broken glass and shredded cans and having spoken to a number of Serco staff on the street, they were experiencing an impossible task and an impossible situation trying to keep all places clean. It was precisely because of those concerns to welfare that these points were being raised.
The Leader stated that Councillor Jermy had ran successful community groups and businesses across the market town of Thetford and was well aware that if the ‘left hand’ did not talk to the ‘right hand’ the issues that had been highlighted would sadly result in a breakdown in communication between operatives on the ground. It had nothing to do with the Contract and nothing to do with individuals and it was quite right and proper for Members to raise any concerns at these Full Council meetings under Questions without Notice. He urged Members to work together collectively to ensure that the Breckland District was a clean, safe, vibrant place and ensure that the feedback was not just critical but offering that feedback in a constructive manner on what those issues and concerns were. He was grateful to Councillor Jermy for the work he had done with Officers and the local Serco Team to raise these concerns.
The Chairman advised all Members that this agenda item was limited to 30 minutes and was not a debate it was for Members to be able to ask questions due to matters happening in their Wards that may not be known to other Members or the Portfolio Holders. The place to have a debate or raise a political point was at Committee meetings to make Members aware and that Policies were followed.