Venue: Council Chamber, Fenland Hall, County Road, March PE15 8NQ
Contact: Linda Albon Member Services and Governance Officer
To confirm and sign the minutes of the meeting of 5 December 2022.
The minutes of the meeting of 5 December 2022 were confirmed and signed subject to the following comment:
· Councillor Booth said he had one point concerning the Wisbech to March railway. He had raised whether Government had changed the goal posts, but this was not captured in the minutes. Tim Bellamy did not give a direct answer so he had responded that on his interpretation it sounded like they have, so he would like that recorded as an observation.
Update on previous actions. PDF 174 KB
Members to receive an update on the previous meeting’s Action Plan.
Members considered the update on previous actions and made the following comments:
1. Councillor Booth said at the last meeting with Clarion there was an issue about the planning submission for 65 affordable homes not being progressed. He did ask if they had applied through a formal pre-application process to get advice; they were not sure at the time but said they would come back with an answer, however, we are still waiting for that.
2. Councillor Miscandlon asked if there is any update on the ongoing watching brief between FDC and Peterborough City Council regarding the review of planning. Councillor Mason advised there had not so this remains as an ongoing action.
Draft Business Plan 2023-2024 PDF 3 MB
For Overview and Scrutiny to comment on the Draft Business Plan 2023-2024
Members considered the Draft Business Plan 2023/24 report presented by Councillor Boden.
Members made comments, asked questions and received responses as follows:
1. Councillor Tierney commented that officers have done an exemplary job as always on the Draft Business Plan and he found the report to be clear and written in plain English with no jargon.
2. Councillor Mason commented that the Panel would review each section in turn, starting with Economy.
3. Councillor Mason said in respect of staffing levels, he was of the understanding that a dedicated grant officer was going to be recruited this year which would relieve Phil Hughes of a very heavy workload. Paul Medd responded that there is a dedicated Economic Growth Team, and although it is fair to say that quite a bit of Phil Hughes’ work contributes within that priority, his role is not dedicated to the economic priority and does not sit within that team. At one time FDC did have a dedicated grant funding officer but due to austerity there was a change in emphasis in terms of how external funding is pursued. So, although we do not have the luxury of a dedicated grants officer, this is now a function embedded into officers’ roles in different teams. Since then, there has been a significant degree of success having embedded the pursuit of external funding into officers’ daily activities. Councillor Mason thanked Paul Medd and stated he was not making any criticism. He added that Phil Hughes has done a very good job under a lot of pressure in many directions but just thought that having a dedicated grants officer would have helped.
4. Councillor Booth referred to the number of empty properties in the district and said that page 24 of the report should show a net decrease in the number of empty properties to make it clearer. He added that with communities, in the past there was, quite appropriately, emphasis on vulnerable members of the community, but the point he has been trying to make is for community support as a whole. He asked that any advice given in support to any community group holding an event is proportionate and that we do not over burden them with red tape.
5. Councillor Miscandlon said that he agreed with Councillor Booth regarding his comment on red tape, but equally we must be careful not to totally ignore it as potentially the Council could be open to legal action if something goes wrong. Councillor Booth said the key word is ‘proportionate’, making sure it is fit for purpose and not a one size fits all.
6. Councillor Mason said he feels the leisure centres are deteriorating; there seems to be no proper maintenance programme in place and Freedom Leisure does not appear to have the resources to maintain the centres to a standard he would expect. On a visit with the Leader to the Manor Leisure Centre he found it to be a disgrace; there was a hole in ... view the full minutes text for item OSC21/22
To consider and make any appropriate recommendations to Cabinet on the Draft Medium Term Financial Strategy, Draft General Fund Budget 2023/24 and Draft Capital Programme 2023-2026 for consultation.
Members considered the Budget Report presented by Councillor Boden.
Councillor Boden paid tribute to the work done by Mark Saunders, stating his expertise and knowledge is second to none.
Members made comments, asked questions and received responses as follows:
1. Councillor Mason said in his presentation, Councillor Boden referred several times to the word ‘assumptions’ but there are realities in there such as core spending power, new homes bonus decreasing and business rates shortfalls. He said that Councillor Boden had indicated that over the years we have over budgeted so therefore assuming we have reserves, would he be correct in saying that these would counter those shortfalls which are identified in the report as major risks?
2. Councillor Boden said there are two different types of reserves. The first is the general reserve but the reserve he was talking about is budget equalisation which is kept separate because it is specifically related to systemic budgeting issues where the outturn ended up being a surplus, even if on occasion we were budgeting for a deficit over the year. He cannot give a positive answer to the question because he cannot guarantee what will happen in the coming years. It is possible that there will be substantial business rates changes in 2025/26 or that fairer funding will come in which may harm district councils as opposed to county councils in two-tier areas. Lots of things will change and risk is not always a one-way thing, i.e., it will not always be negative. We should bear in mind that as a council we are in a much better financial position than many other district councils across the country because we have been prudent over the last 14 years. Councillor Boden said he has confidence about how we will be able to address the future because we are not in control of the way government makes changes to do with regulations which affects they way we receive money, but central government will not go out of its way to bankrupt local government and they will change regulations to ensure councils can continue to operate financially. Since we are in a better position than many, Councillor Boden said he is confident they will be sufficient for us to continue.
3. Councillor Mason asked for more clarification on core spending power because it appears we are well down on the national average, and he would like to know why. Mark Saunders replied that core spending power is the measure the government uses to determine what resources and funding authorities have and compare for one year to the next. This includes all the items listed on page 31 of the report. Historically what is also included is the level of council tax increases. Because FDC has not increased its council tax over the last five years, we have not increased our core spending power as have those that did.
4. Councillor Mason asked if that meant that FDC was being penalised as a result. Mark Saunders responded ... view the full minutes text for item OSC22/22
Fees and Charges 2023/24 PDF 920 KB
To review the Council’s Fees and Charges for 2023/24, in line with the Budget Strategy considered by Cabinet on 12 December 2022.
Members considered the Review of Fees and Charges 2023/24 report presented by Councillor Boden.
Members made comments, asked questions, and received responses as follows:
1. Councillor Purser said he is asked on a regular basis if it can be guaranteed that car parking will remain free in the district. Councillor Boden said it is ever possible that central government can force us to charge in the future and we cannot change that, but in the meantime there will be an election taking place in four months’ time and this will be a decision for the new administration. Overwhelmingly, most councils charge for car parking, and they make a nice surplus from it and use it to subsidise the rest of their operations. However, as long as Councillor Boden remains Leader of the Council, there will be no charges for car parking unless forced by central government.
2. Councillor Booth said that is the policy of this council, but we are getting to a situation where it is not the only thing we need to do. We need to come up with a better offering to keep our market towns viable. Ultimately we need better shops and services.
3. Councillor Boden said that generally the amount of money needed for changes are considerable and we are depending on opportunities provided to us by the Combined Authority. We have the current March High Street funding works for example. He cannot give a definitive answer, however, to the future of the High Street. Experts are currently saying that people are now requiring experiences. As a council we do need to be aware of the need for flexibility within our high streets and to allow them to change, we have to facilitate that change even if it is for something we do not want to see ourselves.
4. Councillor Mason asked if there is a large demand for room hire at the Boat House and South Fens. Councillor Boden responded that there is significant demand, but we have to be aware of the competitive position and so we have applied a general inflationary increase. We could increase it by more but do not want to create problems for current tenants. It is not just a matter of maximising council income but the impact on the very businesses we are trying to support. Councillor Mason suggested a decrease could attract more tenants.
5. Councillor Booth referred to the proposed changes at Section 3.2 of the report on mini-factories, South Fens Business Centre and the Boathouse and said there had been discussion in the past that these should be considered as breeder units. He asked if that had been fully considered, particularly if we are increasing some of the fees by about 40%. He asked if we are satisfied it will drive the right outcomes we are looking for as it is not always about occupancy but rather about getting those business set up so they can move on to other areas when they find the ... view the full minutes text for item OSC23/22
Future Work Programme PDF 113 KB
To consider the Draft Work Programme for Overview & Scrutiny Panel 2022/23.
Members considered the Future Work Programme.
Councillor Mason stated that it was unlikely that the Mayor of the Combined Authority or his deputy would be able to attend a meeting this municipal year. as planned. Councillor Booth asked if the date of the next meeting was the issue otherwise we could change it. Amy Brown said it was not a matter of the date but there has been ongoing dialogue with the mayor’s office, and they will make it happen if it can.
Councillor Wicks said he is disappointed on a number of fronts. Firstly, that the presentation from the CPCA last year reference skills and the opportunities that they were creating were miniscule and he has not seen any effort to rectify that or come back to this committee to give an indication of what they are doing to address the problem. Secondly, he thinks it is likely that the CPCA will be adding a precept to Council Tax for all residents in Cambridgeshire. Councillor Miscandlon said he sits on the CPCA O&S committee and there was a meeting, but he is not sure what is happening with regard the CPCA precept as no decision was made. Regarding skills, he met with the Head of the Department for Skills who accepted criticism that the report had been produced in a hurry, but they are attempting to correct this, and he will provide an update to this panel when he himself gets an update.