The Council’s rules provide for questions by any member of the Council to the Leader or any Portfolio Holder, without notice on:
(i) reports under the previous item; or
(ii) any other matter of a non operational character in relation to the powers and duties of the Council or which affects all or part of the District or some or all of its inhabitants.
The Council’s rules provide that answers to questions without notice may take the form of:
(a) a direct oral answer from the Leader or, at the request of the Leader, from another member of the Cabinet;
(b) where the desired information is in a publication of the Council or other published work, a reference to that publication;
(c) where the reply cannot conveniently be given orally, a written answer circulated later to the questioner; or
(d) where the question relates to an operational matter, the Leader or a member of the Cabinet will request that a response be given direct to the questioner by the relevant Service Director.
In accordance with the Council’s rules, a time limit of thirty minutes is set for questions. Any question not dealt with within the time available will receive a written reply. The Chairman may extend this period by up to a further ten minutes at their discretion.
The Chairman thanked Members for giving notification of their intention to ask questions without notice.
(a) Local Plan
Councillor S Jones asked the Planning and Sustainability Portfolio Holder to comment on the Planning Inspector’s letter suggesting that the Council look again at the housing numbers in the light of new projections and would this have an impact on the Council’s delivery of the emerging Local Plan.
Councillor N Bedford referred Councillor Jones to the statement and letter he had read out earlier in the meeting.
(b) Governments likely proposals for Unitarisation and Devolution
Councillor C C Pond stated that there was a summit meeting to be held soon of all Leaders and Chief Executives of all Councils in Essex relating to the Governments likely proposals for unitarisation and devolution. He asked the Leader as to what line he would take, how would he consult ordinary councillors and would he report back in the Member’s Bulletin as to the progress of those discussions.
Councillor C Whitbread advised that he would be virtually attending that meeting and would wait for the Government’s White Paper to be published in the autumn, once that was published then there would be a better idea of how to proceed. He stated that he would keep Members advised as the discussions progressed.
(c) Council Housing Repairs to Qualis
Councillor R Bassett asked the Housing and Communities Portfolio Holder what were the benefits of moving the Council housing repairs service to Qualis.
Councillor H Whitbread advised that by moving housing repairs to Qualis it would make the service much more efficient with a technology app that repairs could be reported on which would save more time with staff not having to travel from one side of the district to the other.
(d) Council Housing Stock
Councillor S Neville stated that although the Council took great pride in building new council houses to a high environmental standard he asked the Housing and Communities Portfolio Holder what plans did the Council have in terms of retrofitting their existing housing stock to the same environmental standards.
Councillor H Whitbread agreed that the Council did have high environmental standards when building new Council Houses from solar panels to all modern appliances to ensure that the Councils properties are as environmentally friendly as possible. In relation to retrofitting I will have to consult with officers and put a response in the Members’ Bulletin.
Councillor J H Whitehouse asked the Housing and Communities Portfolio Holder why Telecare was put on hold in March 2020 and would not resume until September 2020. Just after lockdown started she advised that she had referred an elderly resident to Telecare and was told installations had been suspended. Four weeks ago this 90 year old resident fell over in her garden and had to shout for help until someone found her. It seemed wrong that she and others on the Telecare list were having to wait until September to get this very important support.
Councillor H Whitbread stated that she was sorry to hear of the elderly lady falling over and hoped that she was recovering. She advised that she would press officers to get an answer as to when the installations would start again and would liaise with Councillor Whitehouse when she had an update.
(f) Leisure Centres – Covid-19
Councillor P Keska asked the Environmental and Technical Services Portfolio Holder if he could comment on how leisure services have been affected by Covid-19 and how does that affect the Council’s plans for leisure in the future,
Councillor N Avey advised that officers were working closely with Places Leisure to monitor and manage the impact of Covid-19 on the leisure management contract. There have been financial losses due to the closure of the leisure facilities and the Council are hopeful, with centres reopening, the Council will move to a better financial position. The leisure facilities dry side, such as the gym and studios will reopen on Monday 3 August and the swimming pools on the 10 August, this was due to Places Leisure adopting a cautious approach to reopening across all of their contracts. They have allowed sufficient time to fully train staff with new operational procedures and health and safety measures.
(g) Royal Gunpowder Mills
Councillor D Plummer asked the Leader if he would undertake to use every effort within his power to keep the Royal Gunpowder Mills fully open to the public as one of the district’s main visitor attractions and historic sites.
Councillor C Whitbread advised that this Council was always keen to make sure that this district maintains its tourism attractions.
(h) Government Support – Covid-19
Councillor Ian Hadley asked if the Finance and Economic Development Portfolio Holder could comment on Government support during the Covid-19 Pandemic.
Councillor J Philip advised that the Government had provided all councils with a huge amount of support, above £4bn, of this £3.2bn was for emergency grant funding during March and April and £5bn of cash flow support for local authorities through Covid-19, the support included £3.7bn to councils that was not ring fenced, £600m in support for adult social care, £20bn in support for businesses, £500m in council tax hardship funds, £300m towards test and trace, over £100m for homeless support and over £50m for reopening high streets.
In July the Secretary of State announced a new set of support measures which included a scheme to reimburse councils for lost income from sales, fees and charges which allowed the Council to spread the tax deficits over the next three years.
EFDC received just over £1.5m but more will follow in the future to compensate for income losses, losses from business rates and council tax. The Government is continuing to work with councils, we provide the Government on a regular basis with the gaps that the Council are seeing in revenue coming in and increased costs going out. That has been used to target the financial support from the Government to the councils that need it most.
(i) Business and Planning Bill, grant of Pavement Licences
Councillor S Heap asked the Planning and Sustainability Portfolio Holder if he would agree, given the recent ban in France, that outdoor heating is an anathema in the light of the climate crisis declaration and should be similarly banned?
Firstly, Patio heaters are very bad for the environment, they are the equivalent to a truck passing by, a standard 13kg canister could heat up to 25m sq for 12 hours but could do the same indoors for 120 hours together with the emissions and damp heat produced. Secondly they encourage people to congregate and even huddle together in close proximity, which was a very bad thing in the light of Covid-19.
Councillor N Bedford advised that a balance must be struck between supporting business survival, resident nuisance and also climate matters. We want to encourage/ facilitate business to be able to use outdoor space in the cooler months and into the evenings. We are promoting electric ahead of LPG and have suggested more climate friendly solutions too, and I think this is a reasonable balance. Licence conditions require safety measures in place for proper maintenance and storage of heating appliances and management are under an obligation to ensure social distancing is observed; these conditions can be enforced by our Licensing Team.
(i) Where heating was proposed for colder weather, electric heating was preferred to LPG, to minimise the carbon usage. Fire pits are prohibited. Alternative options of temporary screens (subject to Council approval) and rugs, cushions and blankets can also be considered as climate friendly solution.
(ii) All outside electrical heating must be suitable for the use intended and installed and located to eliminate any risk posed by power supply cables, including tripping hazards. All electrical equipment must be subject to regular visual inspection and must be safe, maintained free from ‘danger’ and not pose a risk. Where necessary, electrical equipment must receive an appropriate safety examination, to ensure that it remains safe, maintained free from ‘danger’ and not pose a risk.
(iii) All full and nominally empty gas cylinders for patio heaters or other liquid gas fired appliances, must be stored outside either in a secure cage or suitably secure location, bear the correct signage and located away from drains and gullies (min 2M). The maximum number of cylinders onsite (full and nominally empty) shall not exceed a volume of 100Kg. All gas cylinders must meet latest BS EN requirements.
(j) Large gatherings
Councillor D Sunger asked the Housing and Communities Portfolio Holder what comments she had on illegal raves and large gatherings that are taking place in the district and what actions have been taken to tackle this. Could the Council use social media to discourage people from arranging such events.
Councillor H Whitbread advised that this problem was a really important issue especially from a public health point of view these kinds of events are lethal and they should be discouraged every way possible. I am aware that the police have done a social media campaign around this and I will speak to the Councils Corporate Communications team to ensure that we are sharing all of that information.
Councillor L Burrows asked the Housing and Communities Portfolio Holder to comment on how rough sleepers and homelessness were coping during the Pandemic.
Councillor H Whitbread advised that the Council’s homeless team have done a great job throughout the Pandemic. The Covid laws changed and the Council had strict guidance from the Government to get every rough sleeper and homeless person into accommodation whether they were an Epping Forest resident or not. In the first two months of lockdown 26 rough sleepers had been found temporary accommodation. The Homeless team have informed me that they are trying to secure permanent accommodation for these people when the legislation changes.
There was a wider concern regarding homelessness as lockdown begins to ease a real increase in homeless applications have been received. There was a 65% increase in applications in June/July which is very concerning, a lot of these are as a result of domestic violence. There was also concern about the economic consequences of crime and how this might impact on people in private tenancies but I have been assured by the Council’s Homeless team that they were very organised and were ready to receive those applications.
(l) Town Centre sites in Epping
Councillor J M Whitehouse asked the Commercial and Regulatory Services Portfolio Holder if he had had any discussions with Qualis regarding the consultation it was running on the town centre sites in Epping and the fairly vacuous nature of the current consultation exercise and whether he would push for a more detailed consultation on the actual proposals in due course.
Councillor A Patel advised that he hadn’t had any meetings with Qualis as yet but that he had scheduled a meeting to be held with the new Managing Director of Qualis and once that had taken place he would be happy to report back in due course.
Councillor S Murray advised the Leader that he was grateful for his verbal report and comments on Qualis this evening, but would he agree to outline these really important changes in an email or a written report. These are quite significant issues and to verbally report these changes at Full Council isn’t really acceptable.
Councillor C Whitbread advised that he agreed with Councillor Murray and there would be a written report going to Cabinet, detailing the make-up of the Qualis Board. The Board that has been in place was an interim Board and there was always the plan to make changes.