Agenda item

Questions without Notice under Standing Order No 7 (Agenda item 7)

Minutes:

Councillor Jermy, the Leader of the Labour Group asked Councillor Hewett, the Executive Member for Property & Projects a question.  He was very concerned about the level of commercial property debt as referred to in the response to Councillor Clarke. 

 

Councillor Jermy mentioned that commercial property debt was over £700k as at 30 September 2021 and he was aware that certain detail could not be discussed in open session, but he felt that Members and the public needed to be reassured as to what work was taking place to recoup some of this debt. 

 

Councillor Hewett agreed with Councillor Jermy’s comments about not going into detail about individual tenants as this information was private & confidential and commercially sensitive. 

 

The amount that had been quoted had been taken from 30 September following a series of quarterly invoices that had been issued to all Breckland tenants and was therefore significantly higher than usual.  He announced that since that date that debt amount had been reduced by over £200k.  However, the Council was aware that a number of tenants were themselves in some difficulty, post Covid and post recovery, and as such was constantly working with them, not just in terms of the Commercial Property Team but also in terms of the Business Support Team in a number of different arrangements to ensure that they were actually paying the rents and the obligations due in a fair and equitable manner for all.

 

There was a significant number of tenants who had approached the Council who were in financial difficulty and for the majority of those, deferment terms had been agreed some tenants were paying the Council over and above their original obligations, and the position was being closely monitored.  

 

Councillor Atterwill, the Leader of the Independent Group had 3 questions he wished to ask.  The first was directed to Councillor Webb, the Executive Member for Housing, Health & Communities in respect of the Queen Mother’s Garden in Dereham.  It was in a very poor condition and felt that it was somewhat disrespectful to her memory.  However, that said, he congratulated the Team in what they had achieved in creating the recently opened Ellenor Fenn Garden in the town which he felt was superb but asked Councillor Webb if there were any plans to make any improvements to the Queen Mother’s Garden for the benefit of Dereham residents.

 

Councillor Webb thanked Councillor Atterwill for his question.  The Queen Mother’s Garden had been the subject of quite a few conversations recently between both Dereham Town Council and Breckland Council. She was aware that the Town Council had recently appointed two of their Councillors to look into this as there was S106 monies that was available for this. Additionally, the garden was being considered as part of the Market Town’s Initiative programme and a meeting would be convened shortly to discuss this further and to take this matter forward.

 

Councillor Atterwill’s second question was directed to Councillor Suggitt, the Executive Member for Planning, Leisure & Contracts.  He was very grateful to her and the Officers for coming out to meet him and discuss on site about the issues in regard to the grass cutting carried out in Swanton Morley by Serco and was quite hopeful for a positive resolution. However, it had been brought to his attention that some of the areas that Serco cut in the whole of the Breckland area were areas that were currently owned by Norfolk County Council. He believed that Norfolk County Council had given Breckland Council notice earlier in the summer that from next year it was going to take all these areas back in-house but in doing that it was proposing to reduce the number of cuts per year.  This he felt would obviously be a concern to communities and asked if Councillor Suggitt would be writing to all those who would be affected to advise them of these forthcoming changes so that any complaints could be directed to Norfolk County Council.

 

In response, Councillor Suggitt felt that this would be in Breckland Council’s own interest to contact all the relevant parishes to inform them of these changes if indeed these areas did move to Norfolk County Council. 

 

Councillor Atterwill’s final question was directed to Councillor Cowen, the Executive Member for Finance, Revenues & Benefits.    He asked if Councillor Cowen could tell him when he was first advised of the projected £562k budget shortfall for the Local Plan review.

 

In response, Members were informed that this was discovered when the Council was advised to carry out a review and this had been discussed at a previous meeting presented by Simon Wood, Director of Planning & Building Control.

 

There was always a statutory duty for this Council and other local planning authorities to undertake a review of Local Plans on a regular cycle, and as Members had heard at the previous meeting, this particular review had brought with it some additional burdens driven by the Planning Inspector when approval of this Council’s Local Plan had been granted back in 2019 but subsequently the High Court action regarding the definition of gypsies and travellers delayed matters as well as the proposal from Central Government to issue a Planning White Paper. 

 

All these matters were outside of Breckland Council’s control and, as a consequence, this Council was now in a position whereby those matters were beginning to become clearer but not entirely due to the appointment of a new Secretary of State to consider what had originally been proposed by his predecessor and was a question mark at the very least.  That said, when any planning authority had to look at a Local Plan review it had to be done in the knowledge of what had to be achieved. Breckland Council had now been presented with a best estimate of what may be needed to be done given all the information that was available at the time.

 

Councillor Atterwill thanked Councillor Cowen for his answer but asked for clarification on the following point.  Was the Council aware of the budget shortfall when it was known that it had to carry out a review in 2019 or when the recent report was actually issued by Cabinet.    If it was the former what account had the Council been taking in respect of that projected shortfall in the budget setting for the last two years.

 

Members were informed that it was not the former, the Council did carry forward in its budget costs associated with undertaking planning reviews and Members would have seen in the papers that were presented previously that those figures had been included in the calculations.  What was unknown, until the report was received from the Planning Team, was the extent and quantum that would be required in order to meet all requirements that had been presented to the Council by the Planning Inspector, and subsequently noted through the White Paper that was being promoted at the time. 

 

Additionally, as a Council, it had determined to expand on its Green agenda and Climate Emergency agenda and the current Local plan that was put together in 2019 that had started some 5 or 6 years prior to that did not reflect some of the current themes and aspirations of this Council to deal with climate emergency.  It was therefore decided by this Council that it would adopt a climate emergency and that it would look at its current Local Plan and it would incorporate into that, policies that would address those very important and fundamental aspects accordingly.  In consequence of these matters, the Council needed to consider its options and those options were put together by the Planning Team and presented to Members at Cabinet.

 

Councillor Birt had one follow up question to the Leader in respect of the ventilation in Elizabeth House in regard to the protection from the spread of Covid.  This, in fact, had resulted in him making a freedom of information request and he was pleased to report that he had received all the necessary information except for the Covid risk assessment, the methodology and the test results. 

 

The officers concerned had disclosed one document dated January 2021 which was from an air conditioning service company that did not include all the necessary information that had been requested and had nothing to do with ventilation.   Therefore, in his opinion, the officers had not disclosed all the information necessary, and nobody had any idea if the ventilation system in the building was sufficient to protect all who used it.   He was concerned as Covid levels were increasing and he wanted to ensure that the Council was setting a good example and have a safe building.

 

Taking all the above into account, he asked the Leader if he would agree with him that a full and proper test of the ventilation system should be carried out to ensure that it provided fresh air to all areas of the building and furthermore that real time CO2 monitoring should be included to ensure that everyone was working in a safe environment.

 

The Leader did not have all that information to hand and advised Councillor Birt that there was a full and proper process to go through if he had not been happy with the outcome of the freedom of information request.  He admitted that he was not best person to respond to the question pertinent to ventilation and the risk assessment and asked Ralph Burton, the Assistant Director of Property & Projects to follow this up on his behalf and provide a written response.

 

Councillor Crane asked Councillor Sherwood, the Executive Member for People, Communications & Governance a question in relation to the ‘Green’ grant applications.  She was aware that the window for the applications had now closed and asked Councillor Sherwood when the successful applicants would be notified. 

 

Members were informed that the Council had made a commitment to pledge over £100k in ‘Green’ grants and the reason for the slight delay was due to the fact that the Council had received applications totalling over £200k.  This underlined the fact that local residents, businesses, charities, town & parish councils across the district had all been involved and hence the delay. The ‘Green’ team had been through all applications, and all had been validated and he was pleased to inform Members that letters would be sent out to all applicants in the next couple of weeks to confirm whether their applications had been successful or not. Once accepted, announcements would be made across the Council and the Ward Representatives would be notified accordingly.

 

Councillor Terry directed his question to Councillor Bambridge, the Executive Member for Waste & Environment.  He pointed out that there were over 50 incidences of illegal flyposting between the London Road roundabout near Sainsburys and the roundabout on Fison Way near Multimatic Technical Centre in Thetford this amount did not include any posters that were displayed in the town, and he asked Councillor Bambridge if there were sufficient resources to deal with such matters.

 

Members were informed that the Council was already looking into these matters, but this was a very difficult problem to solve.  If commercial flyposting was spotted these were dealt with in an appropriate manner and the Council did have a policy for the removal of such material if they were out of date.  Most towns and parishes did not mind them being there as it was a good way of advertising what was available in the area and most town and parish councils displayed their own posters without having to gain permission. However, he was aware of the issues, and these would be dealt with but as there was only a limited a resource, such matters would be dealt with at the best of the Council’s ability.   He asked Councillor Terry to send all the information to him via email.

 

Councillor Robinson, the Executive Member for Customer, Digital & Performance and a Ward Member for Thetford encouraged Members and the public to use the reporting function on the Council’s website for such matters.

 

Councillor Wickerson directed his question to Councillor Suggitt, the Executive Member for Planning, Leisure & Contracts.  He had been kept on hold for over 40 minutes in his attempt to urgently contact the Enforcement Team to be told there was no-one available to take his call and asked if there were any steps being taking to ensure that this important service was being supported by moving staff within the Capita workforce on a temporary basis as he was aware of the staff shortages due to sickness some of which was long-term.

 

Members were informed that Capita was already in the process of proactively looking for more staff to increase the Enforcement Team as it was an important department. She was pleased to report that this additional resource should be in place very soon.

 

Councillor Brindle mentioned the commercial property debt and asked Councillor Cowen, the Executive Member for Finance, Revenue & Benefits what he would estimate that debt to be on the upcoming Breckland budget.

 

Members were informed that the figure quoted earlier on in the meeting was not all related to commercial property debt and was pleased to report that it would not have an effect on the Council’s budget.  If any further detail was required, Alison Chubbock, the Assistant Director for Finance & S151 Officer would oblige.

 

As the budget report was due very soon, Councillor Brindle asked if it would be appropriate for Members to be provided with a monthly report on the figures.

 

The Executive Member for Finance, Revenues & Benefits stated that Members could be reassured that Alison Chubbock and her Team were particularly keen to ensure that the Council’s budgets were managed properly and that the budget could be signed off at the appropriate time.

 

Councillor Dowling asked the Executive Member for Finance, Revenues & Benefits a question about the new hardship fund that had been created in this financial year to support people with their Council Tax.  She asked if it could be confirmed how many residents had been supported, and with the reduction to the Universal Credit scheme and rising fuel costs what would the Finance Team be doing to promote the support that was available.

 

The Executive Member for Finance, Revenue & Benefits felt that this was quite a detailed question, and he did not have all the answers, but a written response would be provided to the first question.  The Assistant Director of Finance & S151 Officer explained that over 5,000 residents had been supported by the hardship fund.  Demand had been low thus far, but the funding was still available for people to claim in the future.  The demand was expected to increase, and as such, the scheme was being promoted by the Customer Services Team and the ARP Team and information about this funding and the details of how to apply was on the Council’s website.  

 

The Chairman congratulated all Members and the Cabinet as he felt that this meeting so far had been the most enlightening and impressive question and answering session that had been had for a while.