Questions without Notice under Standing Order No 7 (Agenda item 7)
Councillor Atterwill pointed out that when Opposition Members walked into the room it was very noticeable that Conservative Members had been allowed to sit a desk apart where others had to ‘bunch up’ where they could, and he thought that the idea of this new room layout was to be suitably spaced out for everyone’s health and safety.
The Chairman stated that everyone had been given fair opportunity to be seated as such, there were still other seats available that could accommodate Members accordingly.
Councillor Jermy’s question was directed to the Leader of the Council. He understood that more than 60% of the Conservative Group served in roles that were eligible for special responsibility allowances (SRAs). The Council already had by far the largest annual bill of SRAs in Norfolk at £170k for the last financial year, double that of Gt Yarmouth and Broadland and significantly more than all other districts including the city of Norwich. If the proposals for the General Purposes Committee were approved, it would add yet further costs to the taxpayers with the increase in allowances if recommended by the Remuneration Panel. He asked the Leader why Breckland’s SRA’s were so disproportionally higher than the rest of the County.
In response, the Leader stated that Councillor Jermy was more than welcome to resign his own SRA as the Leader of the main Opposition Group, one of the most highly remunerated Opposition Leaders across the County. He felt that the remarks were quite hypocritical when Breckland as a lead authority had the lowest council tax in the Country and felt that the level of Breckland’s SRA was due to the high level of commitment expected from the Chairmen and Cabinet Members in the work that they did. All worked very hard not just during the day but in the evenings too and therefore felt that the residents of Breckland received great value for money but as the lowest district council tax in the Country, protecting all frontline services and continued to invest whilst ensuring that politicians were accountable and held to account for the direction of travel for this authority committed politicians were needed to carry out this work. On top of that, many Cabinet Members and the Chairmen of this Council had day jobs and therefore had to miss days when working on the Council’s activities and should be remunerated for that loss of income, and therefore, no-one would be discouraged for standing in local Elections.
Councillor Jermy expected the Leader to point out that he did receive an allowance and was the only Member of the Opposition to receive an allowance not 60% of the ruling Group and felt that it was important to note that the allowance for the Leader of the entire Opposition was equivalent to just one of the three Cabinet Executive Support Members of this Council not including the large number of Cabinet Members.
The Leader emphasised that Breckland was a Member led Council and if the Opposition Leader wanted an Officer to run authority, he suggested that he go and work for those London Boroughs or Metropolitan Councils where they were not as committed in driving their agendas forward. He alluded to the fact that his reference was not just to the Opposition Leader’s SRA but was in reference to all the SRAs that he received at County and at District level of which he was one of the highest paid Opposition Leaders in the County. The Leader felt that it was a shame that Councillor Jermy felt that he had to ‘nit picking’ in two questions rather than holding the Executive to account for some of the decisions and policies that the Council made across the District. Finally, he pointed out that the Opposition had cried out time and time again for greater oversight and greater scrutiny on some of the Council’s activities and as such there was a further agenda item for commissioning a new Committee of which Councillor Jermy should be grateful.
Councillor Atterwill, the Leader of the Independent Group directed his first question to the Leader.
He had seen a press release before Christmas stating that the Leader was up for an award for Leader of the Year but had not seen anything since and asked the Leader if he could advise the Council of the result.
The Leader informed Members that he was nominated for the Local Government Leader of the Year Award and was a reflection of the hard work of Members and most importantly the Officers of Breckland Council but sadly he had not been successful but was only one of four individuals that were brought forward as the semi-finalists. The award went to a Member of which he was immensely proud of the work that she had done within her London Borough as she had achieved a great deal.
The second question was for Councillor Webb, the Executive Member for Housing, Health & Communities. In October, Members had been informed that a paper had been produced call Dereham Investment Priorities and had noticed that one of the proposals was to spend £25k on a clock for the marketplace in Dereham. He had also seen that just recently there had been an advert sent out for a tender opportunity for £20k worth of street art in the town too. Given the looming cost of living increases did Councillor Webb believe that the public would consider this as a good use of public money.
Councillor Webb assured Members that the 3-year Market Town Initiative for the 5 market towns in Breckland was a programme of works to improve footfall which she felt was very important after Covid. She also reassured Members that the proposal for the clock had not been supported but the street art decision had been discussed and agreed. Tenders had been submitted and once received Dereham Members of the Committee would look and decide whether or not this money would be spent on the street art and whether it would be good for the town. In Thetford, there had been a table tennis facility installed in the park and for Dereham, after the very first lockdown, some of the money available had been used for the clean-up of the town in preparation for the shops to re-open. Another initiative was the ‘knitters’ exhibition that was received so well not by just the people of Dereham but from all the villages too, and such initiatives should be encouraged.
Councillor Atterwill agreed, there was a great deal of good work proposed for Dereham including the Queen Mother’s garden but it was just the clock that he had an issue with.
His final question was directed to Councillor Claussen, the Deputy Leader. At the recent Local Plan Briefing, it was confirmed that no Development Strategy had been put in place for the growth of the District to ensure that new homes were built in the most suitable locations. Despite this glaring omission, the Deputy Leader had stated at this Briefing that the Council would be sending out a ‘Call for Sites’ across the District and the plan was to produce a Development Strategy retrospectively, all of this at the same time that he had deemed that the Member Local Plan meetings should be confidential. He asked Councillor Claussen if he felt this to be acceptable.
The Deputy Leader informed Members that at yesterday’s Briefing, Councillor Atterwill had described not having such a Plan in place was ludicrous and was promptly told by the Officers that there would be a Spatial Strategy, and this would be worked on in tandem with the call for sites. The call for sites was about having land that was available and viable and fitted all other necessary criteria. The Deputy Leader mentioned other matters that Councillor Atterwill had not agreed with in the past but further debate would be had.
Councillor Atterwill corrected the Deputy Leader; it was a Development Strategy not a Spatial Strategy. He then explained his reasons behind wanting a Development Strategy in place first before the call for sites and all the discussions going forward would not include public scrutiny.
Councillor Birt, the Leader of the Green Party directed his first question to Councillor Cowen, the Executive Member for Finance, Revenue & Benefits.
At the Cabinet meeting on 10 January, Councillor Cowen claimed that every band D council taxpayer received £753 pounds worth of services for around £100 of costs. On the basis that many of these services required significant additional payments, for example a garden waste bin or a submission of a planning application etc and asked how this had been calculated.
In response, Councillor Cowen advised Councillor Birt that as he was well aware, council finances were a fine art and there was a Team of Officers who were able to put together as much information as he so wished. These were the facts in which he had been presented and just as the fact that Breckland Council was the lowest District Council Tax in the Country and the County. The Government statistics had clearly shown that the average Council Tax for the authority excluding parish precepts and special expenses was the lowest in the country. Breckland Council currently charged £100.46p and the most expensive happened to be Ipswich but in the County of Norfolk Breckland was the lowest. If Councillor Birt required further information on the detailed breakdown, the Finance Team would be able to provide it.
Councillor Birt then asked Councillor Ian Sherwood, the Executive Member for People, Communications & Governance a question about further amendments being made to the Constitution, yet the Code of Conduct had not been updated and referred to the Seven Principles of Public Life and asked why the Council was not specifying in the Constitution that Members must be truthful.
In response, Councill Sherwood was pleased to inform Members that this piece of work was on-going.
Councillor Eagle thanked Councillor Suggitt, the Executive Member for Planning, Leisure and Contracts for attending the RSPB webinar where the decline of swifts and house martins and provision of nest boxes in new builds were discussed, and asked Councillor Suggitt if she had any further ideas going forward.
In response, Members were informed that Breckland Council was part of a link in the chain including other councils, housebuilders, and people from the wider community. There were already measures in place for this Council to try and proactively encourage swift boxes, hedgehog holes and bat boxes but there was always more that could be done, and she looked forward to working with Councillor Eagle and other organisations further on such matters. She felt that such webinars should be encouraged and promoted, and she would work with the Team and get it added to the Members’ Page and disseminated to Town & Parish Councils for a wider audience.
Councillor Sherwood knew Councillor Eagle was passionate about the birds in the District and congratulated the South Pickenham Ward for applying for the Council’s Green Grant scheme which was accepted to install swift boxes. He was pleased that Breckland’s local communities were already taking up this challenge and doing something about it. He had also been pleased to hear that the Council’s Sustainability Officer had already been having discussions with the Planning Team on such matters which was now very high on the agenda.
Councillor Crane asked Councillor Sherwood for an update on the tree planting in the District. Members were informed that, as the previous question, sustainability was very important for the public and residents of Breckland, and the Green Agenda had become one of the key factors of interest. The Council had been working with the Woodland Trust and a number of Breckland owned sites had been put forward for consideration. Councillor Sherwood was pleased to report that a response from the Woodland Trust had been received and had confirmed that 3 of the sites submitted were extremely suitable for tree planting. He would be informing Ward Members and the relevant Parish or Town Councils where these sites would be in the next few weeks and trees would be planted in those 3 sites in the appropriate season in March. All Members would be kept informed of the location of these sites in due course.
Councillor Hewett, the Executive Member for Property & Projects directed his question to the Leader. He wondered if more clarification could be provided, following the comments made earlier, on a recent disagreement/argument on the Council’s claim that it charged the lowest District Council Tax in the country, that turned out to be headline news in the local newspaper that had stemmed from an apparent disagreement at a previous Cabinet meeting which he could not recall. The argument centred on comments made by Councillor Cowen which had been disputed by Councillor Birt.
In response, the Leader confirmed that Breckland Council was the lowest District Council Tax in the whole country.
Councillor Dowling asked the Leader about the ‘levelling up’ grant funding that Breckland Council had recently applied for and an Arts Council grant for Thetford which unfortunately had not been unsuccessful and asked for reassurance that there was sufficient capacity and the right skills in place to improve the success rate for external grant applications. These grants were crucial to fund the infrastructure with the District and other project needs in the future.
The Leader reminded Members of his previous statement where he had mentioned Snetterton Heath where the Council was able to obtain grants and funding from other partners. He also assured Members that Breckland Council did have the capacity to submit successful bids and it had been immensely disappointing that it had been unsuccessful this time on both applications. Future work would allow the Council to have the necessary data to ensure that Breckland was poised to bid for any funding from any bodies but particularly from Government moving forward. He looked forward and was hopeful that when the next round of levelling up funding became available at the latter part of this calendar year that Breckland would be ready to submit another bid which would hopefully be successful.
Councillor Dowling conveyed her thanks to Councillor Suggitt for her part in diversity as she herself was also very passionate about wildlife and birds.
Councillor Morton understood that development had now started on the new Leisure Centre in Swaffham which he fully supported but as the two existing leisure centres were not sustainable in terms of carbon emissions and he asked Councillor Sherwood, the Cabinet Member for Climate Change to confirm that this new building in Swaffham would be designed to be carbon neutral. Members were informed that climate change and the sustainability agenda were both key and Councillor Sherwood agreed that the Leisure Centres across the District traditionally were a cause of high carbon emissions but were under consideration and would definitely be looked at in the future. As for the Swaffham Leisure Centre it had not reached the design stage as yet, and it could not be confirmed as to whether the building would be carbon neutral, but talks were underway and such matters would form part of those discussions going forward.