Questions without Notice under Standing Order No 7 (Agenda item 7)
The Chairman reminded Members that this part of the meeting was for questions only and not statements and had a time constraint of 30 minutes. All questions should be directed to the relevant Portfolio Holder or to the Leader.
Councillor Jermy, the Leader of the Labour Group, directed his question to the Leader, Councillor Sam Chapman-Allen.
He mentioned a report that had recently been released by the Salvation Army, ‘Understanding People Understanding Places’ that looked in detail at the Government’s ‘Levelling Up Agenda’ and the release of new funding.
This report claimed that numerous areas would be left behind by the Government as the formula did not adequately look at entrenched deprivation and morality. One of the areas that it listed of being unfairly penalised was the Breckland district as the formula relied heavily on employment figures and whilst Breckland had always had good levels of employment it struggled with the numbers of zero hours contracts, seasonal employment, and low wages.
He asked the Leader if he would commit to writing to the Government to urge them to review the formula used for the said funding, citing the Salvation Army report that detailed how Breckland residents would be unfairly missing out.
The Leader said that he had not seen the Salvation Army report but had made a note of it and would read it cover to cover; however, he assured Members that he had, via the District Councillors Network (DCN), lobbied the Secretary of State in relation to the formula, and in particular with the emerging ‘Levelling Up White Paper’ in October/November of this year to ensure that the formula was changed. He would also write again individually as a Council rather than via the DCN to ensure that the Secretary of State had taken account of the Salvation Army report.
Councillor Atterwill, the Leader of the Independent Group, asked the Leader if he would support the creation of a Task & Finish Group to closely monitor the Serco contract and make suggestions for any improvements.
The Leader advised that he would support any decision made by any Committee Chairmen but there was already a clear framework in place in respect of the contract. There was an Oversight Board not just for Breckland but across the three Councils that had a clear ability to feed into the Contract Monitoring Board but if the Chairman of the Overview & Scrutiny Commission decided that a Task & Finish Group was required on any matter as Leader of the Council, he would support that decision.
Councillor Birt asked a question on behalf of Saham Toney Parish Council. The Leader had attended the Parish meeting on 2 August 2021 where there was some discussion about the Saham Toney Neighbourhood Plan and the problems the parish was experiencing and, the Leader at the time, had said he would investigate these issues. A letter had been sent from the Parish Council to the Leader that included some of the issues outstanding including an instruction that Breckland Council would provide livestreaming when the examination period was set but yet the Council had since advised that it would not be able to do accommodate this. There were also out of date elements on the Breckland website as according to the website Saham Toney Neighbourhood Plan had yet to undergo Regulation 16 Consultation but that had been completed in December 2020.
The Chairman interrupted Councillor Birt, he had asked the question but again was trying to make a statement and asked the Leader if he would like to respond.
The Leader said that he had been delighted to attend the Parish meeting at the invitation of Councillor Crane and the Chairman of Saham Toney Parish Council. A plethora of very good questions had emerged from this meeting not just in respect of the Parish but across the district and quite rightly members were challenging him on matters pertaining to their Neighbourhood Plan. He had raised these issues with the Cabinet Member and the Director of Planning in relation to Councillor Birt’s questions pertaining to the website and had notified the Parish Council that this would be updated following the referendum that was due to take place and the communication was still on-going with the clerk and the Chairman of the Parish Council.
Councillor Wickerson directed his question to Councillor Webb, Executive Member for Housing, Health & Communities. He drew attention to the previous Council minutes where he had raised a question about Flagship and the fact that Members had still not received lists of properties in their own Wards. It was promised that this would be delivered by the end of July, and he asked for an update from Councillor Webb as to what had happened to that list.
Councillor Webb stated that the Housing Team had been chasing Flagship for this list and it was expected imminently but assured Members that following this meeting she would ask the Housing Team to send another reminder and she thanked Councillor Wickerson for raising this again.
Councillor Dowling stated that it was estimated that approximately 9,000 families in Breckland would receive a cut in income of £1,040.00 a year from 6 October 2021 as the government scrapped the £20 top-up to Universal credit that was over £9m in reduced support for the most deprived families in Breckland. £9m less available to spend in the local economy and had been described as the biggest overnight cut to the basic rate of social security since the foundation of the modern welfare state. She asked the Leader if he would join other Council Leaders and write to the Government asking them to keep the support at the current levels.
Members were reminded that the increase to Universal Credit was only a temporary measure through the pandemic that was communicated quite clearly to all recipients. As a District Council, it had its own internal Hardship fund that stood up through the pandemic and still had money available for those who found themselves in financial hardship. There was also the Council Tax Hardship fund that had not had a high uptake thus far and the money was still ringfenced for those who found themselves in financial difficulties.
Once again, Breckland District Council was setting a precedent compared to its colleagues and was the only council in Norfolk at district level that still financially supported the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) that did incredible work on money advice across the district. He was aware that Stephen James, the Council’s Assistant Director for Communities & Housing and Councillor Alison Webb as the Cabinet Member were both working closely with the CAB to ensure that it was the first point of contact to ensure that residents received the help they needed in respect of financial and debt advice.
Councillor Atterwill referred to the previous meeting in July where he had asked a question about the refresh of the Breckworld App. At that time, the Leader had stated that the refresh should take place in time for the school summer holidays and he asked whether this had been actioned.
Members were informed that the update had taken place and went live the first week of August.
Following on from the comments that had been made previously, Councillor Birt stated that if the Council was confident in the quality of the Council’s Covid Risk Assessment why had it not been published in full along with the methodology and the test results. Otherwise, he felt that he was in the perverse situation as a Member having to make an FOI request on his own Council.
The Leader was quite perplexed at the question and did not have that technical detail to hand and referred the question to Rob Walker, the Monitoring Officer.
Members were informed that at several meetings previously the Council had published everything it was required to publish as an authority and was comfortable in that position; therefore, the question had already been answered.
Councillor Birt asked how many Afghan refugees had the Council offered to resettle in the District and how many did the Council plan to accept.
The Leader thanked Councillor Birt for his question. The Council’s position on this matter and was no different to the Syrian refugees and being a large District of 500 square miles with urban and rural settlements, the Council had to ensure that those individuals who were settled within Norfolk were settled where those wider wrap around services were available.
The East of England Local Government Association was liaising with the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCO) and the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) to ensure that all those Government departments were working collectively. Norfolk County Council was taking the lead on behalf of Norfolk and the current position was the exact same as the Syrian refugee relocation and was currently happening in the Norwich and the Norwich hinterland areas where those support services were available.
This Council had set a precedent during the Syrian refugee situation as it offered financial support to those authorities to ensure that they could deliver the service required and Breckland Council was doing the same again and was poised ready to support those Councils if and when they asked for it. Breckland Council had also been working with the private sector and the social landlords across the District to ensure that if properties were available that a list was created and if the position moved away from the Norwich area that such refugees could be settled within the District. At this point in time, Breckland did not have any Afghan families settled in Breckland.
The Chairman thought it was very pleasing to know that as a District, it was getting involved in this terrible situation that those people had found themselves in. He asked the Leader to continue with his updates to Members on this matter.