Questions without Notice under Standing Order No 7 (Agenda item 7)
Councillor Jermy, the Leader of the Labour Group, asked the Leader a question about Devolution. He had been interested to notice in the local newspaper that Breckland Council would be joining the pre-action protocol to potentially legally challenge the Devolution proposals. He was aware that according to Cabinet procedures, all Members did not have to be consulted but he hoped that the Leader had consulted with the Conservative Group Members before any decision had been made. He was interested to hear, given the Leader’s previous comments and his reluctance to spend money on legal costs, how much money had been set aside by this Council to support such costs in relation to challenging Devolution.
The Leader stated that to date this Council had incurred no costs in the pre-action protocol but as Members could ascertain from the emerging budget there were existing allocations for legal fees and if this Council was minded taking anyone to judicial review, this would be a Council decision and the budget allocations for such a matter would be included in the report.
Councillor Atterwill, the Leader of the Independent Group, directed his question to Councillor Crane, the Executive Member for Environmental Health, Licensing & Sustainability. He had noticed that it had been reported in the local newspaper that Serco employees had voted for strike action and asked what contingencies Breckland Council had put in place to mitigate any disruption for residents.
Councillor Crane stated that the Council’s priority was to maintain the service for residents, and she hoped that such industrial action could be avoided. However, in case the strike did go ahead, the contractor had contingency plans in place to help to mitigate the impact including drafting in staff from other Serco services.
Councillor Birt, the Leader of the Green Party, directed his question to the Leader but framed his question first.
He stated that previously he had dared to claim that certain activities and actions made by this Council had been mediocre which had resulted in a standards complaint being raised against him. He had been lied to by the previous Chief Executive, he had documented evidence of false statements made by other Senior Officers, and his microphone had been stopped multiple times in meetings, despite not breaking any rules and having a constitutional right to speak. He had been repeatedly denied asking any questions when committee minutes were presented; this had been formally investigated twice where on both occasions it had been found that the Constitution had been breached by not allowing questions. Councillor Birt said that he had a very long list of other examples, but it seemed that his questions should not be heard. He had recently been reading part of the Daniel Morgan public inquiry and the problem had been defined as ‘placing the protection of reputation above fidelity to the truth’, especially in public bodies.
Councillor Birt then asked the Leader why his experiences fitted in so well with the inquiry’s definition of institutional corruption.
The Leader was not prepared to respond to the aforementioned comments and question as he believed he had provided fulsome answers in response to Councillor Birt’s questions on notice and to the accusations that had been made. This Council had very clear processes and procedures in place and Councillor Birt was advised that if he did have any evidence of any Officer or Member breaching those standards then there were clear processes to follow.
Councillor Clarke directed his questions to Councillor Jane James, the Executive Member for Customer & Corporate Services.
Firstly, he was sure that Councillor James was aware of the low uptake for the voter ID certificate which he believed would be of a particular concern to residents in the local Elections. He felt that this was not just going to affect young people but also older people who did not necessarily have a driving licence or passport. Secondly, he asked what Breckland Council was doing to promote the update, and would any data be collected and was the Democratic Services Team adequately resourced. Finally, the staff manning the polling stations on Elections Day could end up having to deal with some very frustrated people who had been turned away due to them not having adequate ID and felt that staff should have some protection or adequate training to address such matters.
In response, Councillor James thanked Councillor Clarke for his questions but asked for clarification on what he meant by collecting data as she was not sure what data he was specifically referring to.
Councillor Clarke said he was referring to national data targeting specific age groups that would ultimately put extra burden on Democratic Services.
Councillor James mentioned the comms effort that the Team had been undertaking in terms of the national programme with the Electoral Commission. Details had also been included in the Breckland magazine that was delivered to all households in the district. The Team was also speaking to Town & Parish Councils, to ensure all messages/advice was getting out into the public arena, and there would be an A4 double-sided leaflet going out with all Council Tax bills. In terms of staffing, the Team was being supported plus there was a great deal of training taking place. The uptake was in line with National and County and nothing unusual was being seen as far as Breckland was concerned. Councillor James then asked all Members to continue to have those conversations with their residents about photo ID so that everyone was well informed.
Councillor Clarke thanked the Executive Member for her response and was pleased to note that people applying for postal votes did not have to provide the photo ID certificate.
Councillor Turner asked Councillor Webb, the Executive Member for Health & Communities to provide an update on the Mobile Food Bus.
Members were informed that the Food Bus service would resume next week on Tuesday, 28 February. The Food Bus did not just sell reasonably priced food but also provided many other services such as debt advice etc; however, the problem had been the lack of private space. Councillor Webb was pleased to announce that Breckland Council had gained the use of 9 village halls with suitable rooms where such matters could be discussed in private. She then explained how the new service would work.
Councillor Wilkinson also directed his question to Councillor Webb. He asked how the applications were progressing in terms of funding being provided for the King’s Coronation.
Councillor Webb explained that there were two funding programmes running at the moment. The Celebratory Grants Scheme where organisations could apply for a grant up to £500 – this scheme would close on Friday, 24 February. Forty applications had been received thus far and had proved to be very popular. Then there was The Flagpole Match Funding Award Scheme, that was also supposed to finish on 24 February, but this had been extended for a further week to allow more time for Town & Parish Councils who wanted a new flagpole in their village or town to apply.
In response to a question and statement made by Councillor Marion Chapman-Allen about Councillor Birt, the Leader stated that some of his earlier responses highlighted his frustrations and disappointments.
Councillor Hambidge directed his question to Councillor Cowen, the Executive Member for Finance, Revenue & Benefits. In the written responses in terms of the Questions on Notice under Agenda item 6, Councillor Birt had raised the topic of defaults or arrears on Council Tax payments and asked if this could be further explained.
Councillor Cowen advised that there were some arrears but the important question that should be asked was in respect of write-offs. Breckland Council’s figure for write-offs as a percentage of the total Council Tax taken was under 0.0001%. He then explained that every single resident including Members of this Council, were probably in arrears due to paying their Council Tax by monthly direct debit, and until the last debit payment was collected, the account overall was in arrears, and this was the figure that was shown in the response to Councillor Birt’s question on notice. This was not unusual, it was a statement of fact, and last year, as again could be seen in the written response, the amount that was finally written off in the year 2022/23 was £6,080.00, a very small percentage, bearing in mind that this Council collected around £90m of Council Tax on behalf of the District, Norfolk County Council, the Police & Crime Commissioner and for Town & Parish Councils. Councillor Cowen was therefore very pleased that this Council was able to demonstrate that it did its job effectively and efficiently, that its arrears were de minimis and this was all credit to the Anglia Revenues Partnership Team in Thetford, an organisation that he was very proud to state that this Council set up with other authorities.
Listening to the response from Councillor Cowen, Councillor Borrett asked the Leader if he would agree with him that it had been very disappointing that this Council have had to spend £15,000 defending itself against an incorrect challenge from a member that was literally twice the amount of the total Council Tax arrears.
The Leader explained that this Council had to defend itself and Officers advice had been sought and had been provided and the right decision had been made. Members had to work in partnership with everyone in the community including Officers in a mutual trust and in a respectful way and he trusted the Officers judgement and respected their advice when it was offered and this was the reason why Council and Cabinet, other Committees and the Commission recommended those decisions along with the advice provided; however, he was immensely frustrated and disappointed that this Council had wasted £15,000 on legal fees, double the amount that had to be written off in arrears.
Councillor Jermy directed his question to the Leader. He said that, yet again, Dereham and Thetford had been overlooked by the Government’s Levelling- up Grant scheme with the Council’s funding bids being rejected for a second time. Councillor Jermy had noted in the press that the Conservative Mayor in the West Midlands had called for an end to the ‘begging bowl’ culture and given the levelling up process was clearly not working for the Breckland District under the Conservative Government, he asked the Leader if he would continue to support the levelling up policy.
The Leader stated that he did support the levelling up agenda in its wider sense as the UK Shared Prosperity Fund and the Rural England Prosperity Fund all formed part of that. There were millions of pounds coming to Breckland of which Members were able to dictate where this money should be spent, he did agree however, with the Mayor of West Midlands, Andy Street and Councillor Jermy about the process used to determine where the allocations went. Further work was definitely needed on the processes currently used and he and other colleagues had already written to the Secretary of State and would continue to do so, and he hoped whatever Government was in power in the coming years would continue with the levelling up framework for the good of regeneration, creating jobs, education and growth.
Councillor Atterwill asked the Leader about a report he had seen in the local newspaper that said Breckland Council had been awarded £1.6m of Government funding. This was very good news for the district but one business in his Ward had made recent enquiries about applying for skills funding but had been disappointed to be told that such funding was not going to be available until April 2024. He asked the Deputy Leader if this date applied to the whole £1.6m or was it just the skills funding element of it.
In response, the Leader informed Members that he did not have the detail of the timeline to hand, but the funding would be drawn down on a phased approach, year on year. He would, after this meeting speak to Officers about reaching out to businesses and informing them of what other funding was available.
As Councillor Paul Hewett, the Executive Member for Property, Projects & Procurement was not in attendance, Councillor Birt directed his question to the Leader. He had noted that it had been previously stated that the income from the sale of the Green Britain Centre in Swaffham would be invested in the town, specifically in a leisure centre facility. Such monies had been allocated as detailed in the budget papers; however, the figure stated was just £700k that begged the question what happened to the millions of pounds that had originally been invested.
The Leader said that this question was getting rather repetitive as the same question had been raised by Councillor Birt some 14 months ago, but he would ask the Democratic Services Officers to search for the previous responses provided. If not content with those he asked Councillor Birt to direct any further questions that he may have to Councillor Hewett or the Director/Assistant Director accordingly.
Councillor Jermy was unsure of who to direct his question to, Councillor Crane or Councillor Suggitt, the Executive Member for Strategic & Operational Planning. He had received a number of complaints from residents recently about Serco and the way they were cutting back trees. Breckland Council had a very good policy about planting new trees, but he was very concerned about the lack of care in respect of the existing trees that were far more beneficial to the environment than saplings and felt that there should be a policy on how to safeguard and maintain them in the best way possible, and not cut them back to bare stumps as had been the case in Thetford.
In response, Councillor Crane advised that there was a policy in place, the Council was also looking at a local policy to replace trees, particularly if they were deemed unsafe. She was aware that Councillor Land had previously mentioned the problems in Thetford which had since been resolved.
Councillor Atterwill had been alerted recently by a resident that Breckland Council had applied for £60k of Government funding under the Changes Places Scheme, to help refurbish, rebuild public toilets. He had asked to see the bid but had been surprised that the funding was for Banham Zoo. He did not have a problem with that but looking at the funding available this Council could have applied for 3 lots of £60k and wondered if any of the Town Councils had been contacted, as he continually received complaints about the state of the toilets in Dereham.
The Leader did not have the detail to hand in respect of the Changing Places bid. He believed all Members were aware that Banham Zoo operated as a charity, and he was pleased that Breckland Council had supported this charity doing some incredible work for animal welfare. The Council had secured this funding from Defra to ensure that charity had longevity and the monies were being used to upgrade the disabled facilities on site. He was not aware whether the Town Councils had been contacted but he would look into this and follow it up with a response.
Councillor Birt referred to the Questions on Notice and the response provided around the figures for optimum air quality. He asked where these figures had been derived from as the academic expert seemed to suggest differently.
The Leader pointed out that the response was contained under question 5 and if Councillor Birt had any concerns about the monitoring he would raise the question with the relevant agency as it was not in his area of expertise.
Councillor Jermy directed his question to Councillor Cowen. He had noticed on Twitter recently, that the Conservatives had reselected Liz Truss for the next General Election, and given that news, he asked Councillor Cowen if he would be revising the estimates for inflation in next year’s budget.
Councillor Cowen had not seen that Twitter announcement but the answer to the question was no.