Members asked questions of Portfolio Holders in accordance with Procedure Rules 8.1 and 8.2 as follows:
1. Councillor Patrick addressed Councillor Hoy regarding homelessness and asked why rough sleeping still exists in Wisbech when several million pounds has been spent on this problem. \He also asked why on 28June at a Wisbech Town Council meeting, Councillor Hoy said she did not know whether the matter was confidential or not when she spoke about the possible eviction of the homeless from the gardens of the property of St Peter’s car park. Was she aware that those people were to be evicted, with many of them left out in the rain unable to collect their personal belongings? He asked if anyone at FDC was there at the time to give support and advice for those people, many of them vulnerable, and if not, why not? He would also like to know what is happening with the FDC-owned hostel at Kirkgate Street, which has been closed for three years.
2. Councillor Hoy responded that there will always be difficulties regarding homelessness. A lot of work has been done with the rough sleepers in Wisbech; some have been housed permanently and are doing well, and a full briefing note will be circulated to all members as an update. Unfortunately, however, some have no recourse to public funds due to their immigration status. This is a difficult situation which many local authorities are facing. These people are being visited, but it is a complex issue. We have had discussions with the Home Office about it, and they have been here on several visits but there is no quick fix. Some homeless people have very difficult and complex problems. In relation to the closure order, she mentioned it at Wisbech Town Council purely as an update to members because an FDC officer had rightly mentioned it to her; but the first part of it is to go to consultation. She mentioned it because she was concerned that what she was saying in good faith, which was to inform town council members about a closure order and to seek their views, would potentially be used to say that FDC officers were doing no work on rough sleeping. That is exactly what happened the following morning, which she found depressing because staff do a good job every day and work hard. As it happened the closure order was not required as it involved private land. The landowner felt that people were trespassing, and so took legal action to evict the trespassers as is their right. They were moved on and given time to collect their belongings. We are working with the people that were on the site through outreach and will continue to so even if they have no recourse to public funds. In respect of the Kirkgate Street hostel, it was previously run by a provider who no longer wanted to run it. Covid-19 hit but we could not put rough sleepers in the property because it had become run down and we would have immediately had to find a provider to manage it and sort out contract terms. We did provide B&B accommodation and worked with the Ferry Project so managed to house people temporarily. However, the Kirkgate Hostel is an ideal property and officers are currently working on a proposal to get a provider to take it on as accommodation, however as negotiations are underway, she cannot make any further comment on this.
3. Councillor Patrick responded that the Ferry Project had initially been prepared to run this property three years ago but had difficulties in coming to an arrangement with FDC over things that needed to be done. However, they are now willing to work with FDC again to reopen the hostel. Councillor Hoy said again due to contract negotiations, she cannot comment on this.
4. Councillor Sutton addressed Councillor Boden regarding the two separate Cabinet IDB posts created at the start of his administration, one strategic and one delivery; that of which is held by Councillor Laws. We are now well into this administration, so what was the objective for the split, what is the outcome and what can we expect in the future? Councillor Boden responded that the objective in splitting the role is that there is a system in place which has a financial impact on this council. The daily work of that needs to be overseen by an individual on Cabinet; the most qualified was Councillor Laws so it was appropriate to ask her. The bigger picture is the extent to which a large portion of our budget is made up by payments which need to be made to the IDBs. This is an unfair system which has been in place for many years, whereby a small number of local authorities have a disproportionally large proportion of their budget taken up by IDB payments of which we are one. He attempted to get interest from some of the other local authorities to see, from a strategic point of view, how the system of IDB payments could be changed so a less disproportionate burden fell on local authorities such as Fenland. Unfortunately, he has been disappointed by the responses and it seems there is not the political will among those authorities that do have the highest burden to push for change. It has been inappropriate during Covid-19 to push this with government departments, but he has not given up though and will try again to seek to change that regime.
5. Councillor Sutton thanked Councillor Boden and asked what other system does he have in mind? Councillor Boden said there are so many possible options; several papers have been written about how systems can change, however he can concentrate on two areas. The first is to have more accountability for IDB payments through the way it is presented on council tax bills, and secondly the way IDBs pay for the capital arrangements they must make. Many IDBs save the money gradually to meet the capital expenditures that know they will have. Therefore, a lot of money is taken from residents in the form of advance payments to fund projects which will materialise in 5, 10 or even 15 years’ time. He would suggest we move away from this practice but finance our capital expenditure through loans from the public works loans board. Councillor Sutton thanked Councillor Boden for his response. He does not fully agree with this approach but wished him luck with his endeavours.
6. Councillor Sutton addressed Councillor Mrs Laws and said he noted as usual the very good results from the Planning Team in terms of meeting and sometimes exceeding percentage targets. However, many of these are with an extension of time and he would like to know what these are for although he appreciated that she would not have this information to hand. Councillor Mrs Laws said she would be happy to forward the information on, in the meantime she could report that the service had been overwhelmed by 64 applications in less than five days. Staff are doing their best and there have been extensions of time because, for example, Covid has led to more people wanting work done on their properties. However, one of the main reasons for extensions of time concerns validation. When it was found that agents were getting only 4% of their applications right first time our brilliant tech team provided a workshop for developers which improved validation by 9%. There is also a checklist on the website, but professional developers and agents are not following it which exacerbates the issue. Councillor Sutton thanked Councillor Mrs Laws.
7. Councillor Sutton said he voiced his concerns when it was agreed to move monthly Planning Committee meetings to five-weekly. Since then, he has noted an extra nine applications going through Committee compared to last year but with an additional seven meetings to cope with that. This is not value for money, and he asked if Councillor Mrs Laws and the Leader could look at reverting to meetings being four-weekly, even if they have to start earlier. Councill Mrs Laws said she has already discussed this with officers; it is not feasible to hold a meeting on one day a month, even if starting early to get through more applications. Each meeting needs to start with the Chairman’s pre-meet and breaks and lunch would have to be factored in. Furthermore, some applications are major and involve transparent, lengthy, and intense debate; they are not five-minute discussions. So yes, it is something that is being looked at, but she cannot make any promises or provide a decision at this moment. Councillor Sutton thanked Councillor Mrs Laws.
8. Councillor Sutton addressed Councillor Mrs French stating that in the February meeting it was minuted that she said she would come back with an explanation of what WVI is. Councillor Mrs French apologised but said this is Councillor Tierney’s portfolio. Councillor Tierney said that he would be happy to come back to Councillor Sutton with an explanation.
9. Councillor Sutton addressed Councillor Benney on the moratorium on sales of land in Wisbech. Due to this there was the possibility of a company moving out of Wisbech, taking with it some 60-80 jobs but now that the moratorium has expired has any discussion taken place with the company with a view to staying in Wisbech? Councillor Benney said he knows what is happening in the area but due to its commercially sensitive nature he cannot say any more than discussions are ongoing. He takes on board the comment about the moratorium but there have been no further conversations he is aware of that would lead to the company to reopen discussions about purchase of the land. When a solution is found and an announcement made, he will inform Councillor Sutton but is sorry he cannot be more specific.
10. Councillor Booth addressed Councillor Sam Clark regarding smoking cessation. He is surprised to read that we still have a high rate of smoking in Fenland given that when we last had the Director of Public Health in Overview & Scrutiny, they said we were making good inroads and reducing the rate, and therefore it appears we might be going backwards. He asked Councillor Clark if she has any observations on that. Also, they have listed three prioritisation plans but they are only suggested, so does she know what impact they might have as they appear to be quite specialised areas. Councillor Clark said she will investigate this and get back to him with an answer.
11. Councillor Booth picked up on the point regarding IDBs. He said part of the issue around funding of IDBs is a lack of understanding which was highlighted at North Level when we wrote to the Treasury regarding the fact that IDBs will have to pay full rate on red diesel. A response from a Treasury Minister showed that lack of understanding about how IDPs are funded and of the impact on council-tax payers. Therefore, there are some education issues in government about IDBs and one suggestion is to maybe approach making IDBs a precepting authority in their own right. Councillor Boden said Councillor Booth has hit on a point that the civil service does not fully understand IDBS as an area that is quite specialised and only affects a small minority of the country but does affect it quite seriously. However, there are many problems linked to precepting, so he would be cautious about that.
12. Councillor Booth addressed Councillor Murphy regarding the household waste collection. He said we are below our target level and this was raised this at Overview & Scrutiny. He has looked at some tables that indicate we are not doing as well as suggested and figures are starting to show that. He asked if we could look at the way we do recycling, look at the initiatives and other ideas for items that we can recycle. Councillor Murphy responded that the recycling rate is still very good. He attended a RECAP meeting, and all are suffering from same sort of thing. More items are now being recycled, and people are creating more recycling as they are spending more time at home. We are close to being cost neutral. Councillor Booth thanked Councillor Murphy but said the plea is what else can we do and what else can we recycle? We should be exploring more ideas to hit our targets. Councillor Murphy responded that all the councils in Cambridgeshire are doing this. We are currently waiting for the Government to come back to us regarding kerbside collections, if they want us to do this then it will be costly in terms of money required for more vehicles and bins. He pointed out that if one cubicle on a refuse vehicle fills up, it needs to be emptied but the other cubicle may be virtually empty. For perspective, we currently have about 14 vehicles at a cost of £275k each. The new kerbside vehicles cost about £395k each, and electric vehicles will cost about £450k each. We will either continue as we are now, or the Government will have to pay a lot of money towards this.
13. Councillor Yeulett addressed Councillor Benney saying he is pleased to see construction work at Stainless Metalcraft. He asked if there has been any development with the Albert Bartlett site in Chatteris? Councillor Benney said yes, he had visited Bartletts with members of the Economic Growth team; 90% of the site is being re-let and there are plans to expand on the land behind that, which is excellent news for Chatteris. Many of the staff at Bartletts are now working at Chelmer Foods who have moved into area and are looking to expand in Chatteris. He is very pleased with the work that Toby and Oliver Bartlett have done to get the sites let. Most of the interest in the area fails because we have not got the units of the size that companies need so this has helped.
14. Councillor Yeulett said this is a pleasing response and asked about the rest of district. Councillor Benney responded that there has been some activity in Whittlesey with companies in negotiations with other landowners, although he cannot elaborate on this. In Wisbech there is interest with the FDC-owned industrial units.