Agenda item

Annual Meeting with the Leader and Chief Executive

Presentation on FDC’s key achievements and performance 2021/22


Members had received the presentation from the Leader and Chief Executive prior to the meeting. 


Members made comments, asked questions, and received responses as follows:


1.    Councillor Boden said he noted that several of the questions received from the pre-meet are more operational than strategic and asked if the report is being produced in a way which is not helpful for the Overview and Scrutiny Panel to question the strategic side of what the Council does.

2.    Councillor Mason said he was satisfied with the presentation of the report as it highlights the indicators, although it was important to concentrate on the RAG. However, there are only two points to bring up on this, one being the homeless situation, which is being dealt with positively.

3.    Councillor Boden said this is not an easy area to work in and it is getting more rather than less difficult for various reasons; he has a great deal of respect for the officers working in this field, they do a lot of work behind the scenes daily to prevent further homelessness. Councillor Boden added that it is recognised there is insufficient resource, which is why we have acted with many partners to have greater resource available so we can deal with individuals who find themselves in that terrible situation of being statutorily homeless more efficiently, effectively, and compassionately.

4.    Councillor Mason said the other red area relates to Planning. Minor issues seem to be in the red as opposed to major planning applications and he would like to know why.

5.    Paul Medd responded that is always a concern when performance targets are either amber or red. In respect of the minor planning applications, this can be put down to two key issues, namely the unprecedented volume of applications over the last 12 months, although it is good to see active development in the district, coupled with a degree of staff turnover, which impacts on continuity and time taken to induct new staff.

6.    Councillor Mason asked if there are the staff to deal with minor applications. Paul Medd responded that there is a continuum, always making sure there is a fit-for-purpose staff structure to deliver on Council objectives, but it is also about finding the balance between having adequate skills and capacity against the sustainable financial situation and challenges the Council is confronted with. One of the other issues that impacts on timescales is that applications need to be validated which puts further pressure on the system.

7.    Councillor Boden said that the importance of looking at the planning team processes cannot be overemphasised, streamlining to achieve more with the same number of staff. There is currently a lot of work going on behind the scenes which will lead to a significant improvement of team performance overall. He is not sure that that the numbers always tell the truth that may be useful to us, and they are not always direct measures of our failure; in some cases it is down to third parties, and it may be better to produce some statistics to show where we have failed rather than a failure to achieve a particular target. It should not be assumed that every failure to achieve a target is a failure of the Planning team itself.

8.    Councillor Booth said that we do have an annual review of the planning service, but he would like to point out that he has stated before that he has received feedback that the actual validation process can be quite pedantic at times. There is a balance to be had but when looking at other authorities, they do not have as many rejected applications as we do. This goes back to the point around the shared service with Peterborough and how it is working and the impact there, i.e., have they had a massive increase in applications, so we are not seeing the benefits of this shared service. Councillor Boden agreed that was a valid point and commented that we are a victim of our own attempts to be helpful but that is nothing new. The Council’s planning team have been as helpful as possible to applicants, repeatedly assisting people to put in valid applications but because they have been so helpful, they are now being used by many professional planning companies effectively to do their validation for them which is work they should be doing for their clients. Interestingly, the best rate of first-time success comes from applicants themselves when they follow the tick-box plan provided by Planning to what they need to do to put in a successful application. The percentage of first-time right applications from agents remains low but the Council is taking action on this and have started rejecting more applications to encourage them to get it right first time.

9.    Paul Medd stated that Councillor Booth’s point is fair, we want to strive to find the right balance. Validation needs to be robust, but we do not want to be over bureaucratic. 

10. Councillor Miscandlon referred to the homeless statistics and asked if the Council is expecting more money from central government. Councillor Boden said there has been a failure in the way in which central government has dealt with local government in recent years in respect of lack of transparency over future funding. We are finding more cases where funding was made available at too short notice to put in the budget. That makes it difficult to answer Councillor Miscandlon’s question, so he has no information currently. Paul Medd said we do expect further relief from government, we would not expect it, but we demonstrate proactivity around seeking government funding or whatever external funding may exist. This is a demand-based pressure and based on our experience, we are always making representation to government about the challenges we have, and we are on the front foot in terms of making our case.

11. Councillor Miscandlon suggested that planning applicants receive a holding email to advise their application is being dealt with and the projected timeframe of when they will hear back so they are not left in limbo. The lack of communication is a particular bugbear of his and it needs to be corrected for clients to be kept abreast of what is going on. Paul Medd agreed that to be a point well-made around effective communication, and this will be looked at as part of the ongoing service review.

12. Councillor Booth said he understands that the homeless KPIs involve a survey done once a year but asked if that is that a correct picture of what homelessness looks like. Paul Medd responded that homelessness is not measured in that way, that is a count of rough sleepers, and it is difficult to tie down the precise number of these. Although homelessness and rough sleeping are interconnected, there are different approaches to how these are measured.

13. Dan Horn commented that there is annual rough sleeper count, but there are also more counts during the year, and these are showing a reducing trend since Covid. The count led to the Council being able to secure bespoke funds for that aspect. It must be recognised though that there are often complex issues involved where loss of accommodation is a symptom not a root cause. Councillor Booth said in that case Dan Horn is talking about additional funding as opposed to the basic local government settlement, but does that not feed in? Dan Horn responded that the local government settlement figure is based on a different calculation.

14. Councillor Boden said that not all rough sleepers are statutorily homeless and in terms of the number of individuals, it is a small proportion of potential number of homeless in Fenland. Dan Horn agreed and said that there were around 10-12 rough sleepers at the last count, whereas the overall presentation of people threatened with homelessness is around 2000 households, which creates an enormous workload. The main reason for this is a loss of a private rented home.

15. Councillor Miscandlon said he was disappointed to read that South Fens business centre has an occupancy rate of 71% and asked if this relates to the main office building or small factory units, and what is being done to improve this figure. Paul Medd said it can be down to various factors, of course the Council wants to see high occupancy figures and the report does not provide this detail. However, some businesses cause turnover because they require larger accommodation as they become more successful, which will lead to a fluctuation in the occupancy figure.

16. Councillor Booth said these are effectively incubator units and not supposed to be long term, so having 71% occupancy is not a bad thing as it indicates success. It may be more prudent to examine the Boathouse rate of 95.8% and why businesses are not moving on. Paul Medd replied that we do know there is a shortage of move-on accommodation within the district, so we are trying to be proactive, whether that be work we do ourselves to bring forward move-on accommodation, and the extension of South Fens is an example. We are looking at drawing on £1m of regional growth funding that has been made available to us from the Combined Authority to further extend South Fens Enterprise Park, but we are challenged in other parts of the district as well. It is important to support that thriving small business network across the district to allow them to flourish and continue to grow and that we can provide suitable accommodation, otherwise the impact could be to stifle their growth or encourage them to seek other accommodation away from the district.

17. Councillor Boden said that the Council has been aware of these potential failings in the system in drawing up the draft local plan to encourage more units to be built to meet demand. Office based move-on accommodation is difficult to find in Fenland and that is why at the last full Council meeting a motion was put forward to give some NNDR relief to developers who want to build such units. Paul Medd added that the Council is also proactive in pursuing the government announcement on investment zones which seek to give incentives to businesses in a particular geographic area. This is likely to pass on business rate concessions as well as flexibilities around planning so we are looking at investment zones and where they may sit within the district. We are currently liaising with the Combined Authority who will submit our representations to Government in due course.

18. Councillor Mason asked if there is a reason why the Fenland Business Awards are not taking place this year. Councillor Booth suggested that it is because the main publication is no longer printed but is now a digital publication. Councillor Mason himself suggested it was likely budgetary constraints.  

19. Councillor Mason commented that he noted contact centre figures had dropped against target and would like reassurance that these are now improving. Paul Medd responded that there had been an issue around resourcing which had an impact on continuity. We are looking at how we provide customer services, so there have been some channel shift changes also but his understanding is that performance is improving and recovering from where it was. 

20. Councillor Mason asked if more information could be given on grant funding that is available. He is often alerted to funding opportunities by the MP’s office but not through FDC. Paul Medd replied that there are many different sources of grant funding available but not all of which is appropriate to FDC and which we do not qualify for, so the Council needs to be selective in what it pursues and that they align with our key priorities. During the past year we have sought to be proactive around external funding and we have a successful track record, getting money for the Wisbech High Street project and the March Future High Street project for example. We are also putting in a significant bid to the government’s Levelling Up programme. But also, the way we assess what is available, how much is available, the criteria for it and the information we put together along with a robust assessment of the cost of delivering a project is paramount. Unfortunately, nobody could have predicted the impact of inflation and a number of projects have been caught up in that inflationary environment. To safeguard against that we presented a report to Cabinet last week on project management. Councillor Boden added that the paper did not need to go before Cabinet and the public domain, but it was important that it did and that councillors saw it as we realised we had to tighten up our methods of evaluating, whether to bid, how to bid and how to deliver a project.

21. Councillor Boden added that some government departments are now putting in their bid terms a requirement that the Section 151 officer gives a guarantee that to the extent a project needs more money, that additional money will be found from the authority itself. That places a greater onus upon us and will cause us to be more risk averse; for an authority that wishes to be ambitious, it is a constraint he is not happy about.

22. Councillor Miscandlon said in view of that, do we have sufficient staff to alleviate the complexities of what is going on without putting too much strain on our Section 151 officer or would it be more prudent to engage someone specialised in that area of work. Councillor Boden responded that some city councils have departments devoted to this, but we are a small district council and not at that scale; it would be inappropriate to gear up to that and we need to act smarter. To do this, we are trying to get things in place in advance; we have flexible officers who prioritise what needs to be done and we have a very competent procurement officer, so we are going in the right direction now. Paul Medd agreed and added that pre-austerity we could have had dedicated funding officers, but this is no longer possible, and roles have developed in a way that service teams have all absorbed that responsibility, keeping an eye out for funding opportunities, submitting expressions of interests and formal bids, leaving only the most complex processes for external expertise.

23. Councillor Mason thanked the Chief Executive and Leader for their attendance, and presentation which was noted.



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