Agenda item

Questions by Members Without Notice

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 and commented on how well this had gone at the last meeting and that every Member who wanted to had a chance to ask their question within the time limit.


(a)        Proposed new Sports Centre in Epping


Councillor L Burrows asked the Environmental and Technical Services Portfolio Holder to confirm that the provision of a new sports centre, including a sports hall, squash courts and a swimming pool, would still viable in a post-covid world.


Councillor N Avey advised that the Council was committed to providing leisure and sporting facilities to residents. A recent consultation by Qualis resulted in residents wanting a spots hall, squash courts and a swimming pool. The Council were listening to what the residents had indicated they would like in the proposed leisure centre. Given the likely aftermath of the Pandemic, leisure facilities would be ever more important for residents health and wellbeing.


In this context he asked Members to note his report and the efforts being made with our partner, Places Leisure, to keep the districts leisure centres open and working safely.


(b)        Fly-tipping in Buckhurst Hill


Councillor S Neville advised that his question was to the Environmental and Technical Services Portfolio Holder and stated that he had recently been in contact with Portfolio Holder regarding fly-tipping in his ward, in particular the Hornbeam Close area. He stated that over the years the number of times he had been called to deal with fly-tipping in this area and instead of the Council sending out a team to clear this up it was about time to try and find the culprits for this. Therefore, would the Portfolio Holder come and visit the area to see what could potentially be done in a proactive way.


Councillor N Avey advised that he would be happy to come and visit the area to see what could potentially be done to alleviate this problem. Councillor H Whitbread was more on the enforcement side whereas his portfolio dealt with the clearing up of fly-tipping. Therefore, working together, it was hoped that we could come up with some solutions.


(c)        Qualis Consultation


Councillor I Hadley asked the Commercial and Regulatory Services Portfolio Holder how the second stage of the Qualis consultation would be handled this time with the current Covid-19 situation.


Councillor A Patel replied that the consultations were beginning on the 2 November 2020, there would be five days of virtual online sessions which would give residents a chance to see how Qualis Commercial had listened to their comments and fed them into the revised proposal for the five sites in Epping Town Centre. Residents were able to book a place on one of the virtual online events by visiting the Working Together for Epping website.


A pre-recorded presentation would also be available for residents from the 2 November on the Working Together Epping website and they would be able to leave comments up until the 13 November 2020.


(d)        New Epping Sports Centre


Councillor J H Whitehouse asked the Environmental and Technical Services Portfolio Holder if the contract the Council had with Places Leisure was still based on when it was expected that the replacement sports centre would be at North Weald. Now that it had been moved to Epping what was the timetable for re-negotiations and when a decision on the future management of the replacement sports centre would be taken. There needed to be some sort of undertaking given by the Council to Qualis that the Council would take on the sports centre, once it had been built, what was the timetable indication of the process for that.


Councillor N Avey replied that he would update the Council when the timetable was available to him. Discussions were going on in the background, but that information was not yet ready for the public domain.


(e)        Affordable Housing


Councillor D Stocker stated that his question was to the Housing and Community Portfolio Holder and highlighted that the Council had an excellent record providing affordable housing for local people and could the Portfolio Holder confirm that this Council was dedicated to continue with the Council House Building programme.


Councillor H Whitbread advised that the Council were committed to their Council House Building programme and at the October Cabinet meeting she announced that the programme was beginning Phase 5 where a more community led approach was being sought. When Phase 5 was finished the Council would have provided c500 new homes for the residents of the district which was a real achievement. She added that she was very proud and pleased to be continuing with this good work.


(f)         Services that could be transferred to Qualis


Councillor S Murray stated that his question was the Commercial and Regulatory Portfolio Holder with regard to a question asked at the October Cabinet meeting. Councillor A Patel was asked ‘were there any limits to the services that could be transferred to Qualis’ and his reply was ‘I don’t believe there was a limit’. Therefore my question was does the Leader or the Portfolio Holder realise that for many of us we would see that as a way of transferring services from the Council to the private sector and does he also realise that it had sent a message to all Council staff who were currently working in any service within Epping Forest District Council that they might find their future to be working for Qualis.


Councillor A Patel replied that only those services which could demonstrate commercial advantage in Qualis over being in EFDC would be considered. We would consider all services to understand whether a compelling case could be made for them to be delivered by Qualis.


For each service that warrants further consideration there would need to be a full business case that considered cost, quality and staff. Nothing would be transferred without full consideration; scrutiny and the Council being satisfied that transfer to Qualis represented the best option. We as a Council must not forget why we have Qualis, we need Qualis to provide revenue for the Council and in so doing protect our front line services.


(g)        Relief of Food Poverty in the District


Councillor C C Pond asked the Housing and Community Services Portfolio Holder if she would agree with Councillor Pond that much good work was being done locally in the relief of food poverty. He believed that the Council had entered into an arrangement with the Epping Forest Food Bank who were doing excellent work. However, he also believed that the Rotary Club were working, through their organisation, with 3Food4U which operated in Waltham Abbey and Loughton. Therefore, would the Portfolio Holder agree that she should facilitate the Rotary Clubs activities and agree a parity of esteem with the Epping Forest Food Bank.


Councillor H Whitbread advised that she was aware of the good work that 3Food4U were doing throughout the Pandemic, starting off as support for those in isolation with Covid-19 and now grown into a more wider food bank facility across the Epping Forest District. She advised that she was in discussion with the person that runs the 3Food4U and the conversations that have had stipulated that if Epping Forest District Council was to create a further relationship there would need to be some kind of sign posting for those who attended, at present there wasn’t the support that perhaps was given at the Epping Forest Food Bank, she stated that she did have some concerns about that particularly in terms of referrals for the most vulnerable people. They were doing a really good job but if the Council entered into a more formal relationship with them, we would need to make sure that all of the boxes were ticked, because if residents needed the services that we offer, we as a Council would also need to be informed.


(h)        Fly-tipping in Passingford


Councillor H Brady stated that her question was to the Environmental and Technical Services Portfolio Holder regarding fly-tipping in her Ward, she asked what the Council and it’s Partners were doing to tackle fly-tipping.


Councillor N Avey replied that this question went across two different Portfolios and his Portfolio dealt with cleaning up the fly-tip when it was reported to the Council. Enforcement was underway against individuals and organisations when they were caught and it was important that this message was sent out to fly-tippers that if they were caught they would be dealt with.


Councillor H Whitbread advised that the Council were aware of the issues with fly-tipping across the district which continued to be an issue, particularly in the more rural wards. A Portfolio Holder decision had been written, to which had been signed regarding penalty notices and as a Council, have increased the penalty notices, for those who were committing fly-tipping. The Council were also looking to increasing the enforcement so those who did fly-tip would not be able to get away with it. The Council have also introduced a fixed term penalty notice for breach of household waste duty of care. The Council work in close partnership with Essex Police on this issue and they have been doing enforcement throughout the summer.


(i)         Halloween and Firework Night


Councillor S Rackham asked the Housing and Community Services Portfolio what action was being taken to help keep the community safe over Halloween and firework night that we would all experience and what would be your advice to a younger person who wished to enjoy and celebrate these events. 


Councillor H Whitbread stated that Halloween and fireworks night would be very different this year and unfortunately we wouldn’t be able to celebrate in the way that we usually did. In relation to community safety, and issues that we have had in the past, particularly with anti-social behaviour at both Halloween and fireworks night, therefore the Council have taken the precautionary measure to increase the Park Guard patrols throughout the district during this period to make sure that residents who were out and about feel safe and also to ensure that people were strictly following the Covid guidance.


My advice to younger people would to please be more cautious than ever before, stay home be creative at home with your family bubbles rather than going out. Hopefully by this time next year we would have defeated this awful virus and be able to enjoy Halloween and fireworks again.


(j)         Carline Home Care


Councillor S Heap asked the Leader of Council when the decision was taken to use Care Line was the Portfolio Holder aware that Care Line Home Care was owned by City and County Healthcare Limited who were owned by City and County Healthcare Holdings Limited, who were owned by C&C Bidco Ltd who were owned by C&C holdings Ltd who were owned by C&C Midco Ltd who were owned by C&C Topco Ltd and all of these shell companies were owned by Graphite Capital Central Partners VII (Guernsey) LLP and then ultimately by Graphite Capital. 


Each stage of company ownership represented an opportunity to add debt and thereby lower the taxable revenues from the amount of profit that was being accrued by the influx of monies from councils.


The reason I have brought this up was to state that when Qualis goes forward Members must have a stakeholder view of the company and not a shareholder view of the company. Therefore, did the Leader think that this was the best approach to paying tax.


Councillor C Whitbread agreed it was very complex and that he did not know the ins and outs of every tender that the Council had but the Officers concerned would have done due diligence on those tenders.


With regard to Qualis the Council have been open and transparent and personally those Members who were still anti the idea of Qualis have to ask themselves whether they want a low Council Tax Authority and whether they want to continue to protect front line services because without Qualis and without ideas coming forward, which none of the opposition ever do, we will not have a low Council Tax Authority and be able to protect those frontline services that out residents care about.


(k)        Homelessness


Councillor B Rolfe asked the Housing and Community Services Portfolio Holder what action had the Council taken to stop homeless people returning to the streets post the initial lockdown.


Councillor H Whitbread replied that we have all been aware of the challenges with homelessness during this Covid era and the Council were very proactive from the very beginning, the first step we took, before the initial lockdown had been announced, was to make sure that all of the vulnerable people and rough sleepers on the street were taken off the street and placed in appropriate accommodation so they were able to shield from the virus. Accommodation was found for 15 people, which was a lot higher than the usual number of rough sleepers across Epping Forest District.


The Council, along with a consortium of five other Essex Councils were successful in receiving funding from the Government and what we have done with that funding was invested in more permanent accommodation for the rough sleepers that we did home during the Pandemic.


(l)         Sheltered Housing


Councillor J H Whitehouse advised that her question was for the Housing and Community Services Portfolio Holder and stated that she had recently been shown a letter by a resident at one of the Councils sheltered housing complexes and was concerned to discover that the communal areas had been closed since March. She stated that she understood why they had been closed but why weren’t they opened when the restrictions were eased in the summer, where residents could have met in bubbles of six and given a time slot when they could meet in the communal areas. Therefore would the Portfolio Holder commit to reopening the communal areas once the district was out of the tier 2 restrictions.


Councillor H Whitbread replied that the Housing Team were looking closely at opening those communal areas but also being able to facilitate social distancing in a safe Covid secure environment. She advised that she would speak to the Housing Team and make sure that the communal spaces were opened once the restrictions had eased. She felt that it was very important to open those communal spaces as soon as possible to ensure the residents weren’t lonely, which was obviously a key issue at this time.


Councillor Whitbread highlighted that during this Covid period Housing Officers had been calling tenants within the sheltered housing accommodation to provide that support and listen to any concerns that they had.


(m)       Council Car Parks


Councillor D Sunger advised his question was for the Environmental and Technical Services Portfolio Holder. He stated that he was very pleased to note that the Council had been supporting local businesses throughout the Pandemic especially with the distribution of the business grants. It was also pleasing to note the reduced parking charges across the Councils car parks. Could the Portfolio Holder confirm that the usual free parking during the month of December would carry on this year throughout all of the Councils car parks.


Council N Avey stated that he was glad that the reduced parking fees had continued and that the Council had decided to continue due to the ongoing Pandemic. He advised that he would be signing off the usual free Christmas parking arrangements that the Council made every year.


(n)        Housing Register


Councillor D Plummer advised that his question was to the Housing and Community Services Portfolio Holder and the Commercial and Regulatory Portfolio Holder. He stated that there were 1,218 applicants on the District Councils housing register at the end of September 2020 and 182 applicants on a supplementary waiting list for sheltered housing. A substantial amount of housing benefit, paid by the taxpayer, goes to private landlords and Council housing and its rental income could be taken out of the Councils housing stock by the right to buy. Would the District Council and Qualis commit to increasing the amount of housing benefit under the Council, increasing other rental income paid to the Council and increasing the amount of homes available for applicants on the housing waiting list and ensuring those homes remained within public ownership by formally acknowledging something akin to Qualis Homes as part of the Qualis Group of companies providing high quality, energy efficient social housing at rents that low-income families could afford and where needed the housing benefit paid out by the Council was returned to the Council, this should also have positive impacts on health, educational achievements and the local economy as there would be more spending money and secure housing.


Councillor H Whitbread stated that she was happy to answer part of the question that fell within her area of responsibility and would then ask Councillor Patel if he could address the remainder of the question.


Councillor Whitbread stated that she was not on the Qualis Board but she knew that Qualis would work within the Epping Forest District Council planning framework which meant delivering 40 percent affordable housing in line with the Local Plan.


Epping Forest District Council were very proud of the record they have on Council House Building, the Council were building first class Council homes throughout the district for local people. To qualify for Council housing, you had to have lived in the district for 7 years. She further added that she was aware of the impact of the right to buy on the Councils housing stock and it clearly was a challenge but it was also an important right that people have to be given a chance to be able to have a stake in homes that they might not otherwise have had. Therefore, from a housing perspective this Council continued to be dedicated on moving forward with their Council House Building programme, to build energy efficient homes for the future of local people.


(o)        Housing News Tenant newsletter


Councillor D Wixley stated that his question was to the Housing and Community Services Portfolio Holder and referred to page 46 of the agenda under the Housing News Tenant newsletter and stated that he had a number of Council tenants in his ward and he would be interested in receiving a copy of the newsletter and wondered whether it could be sent to him individually or attached to the Members’ Bulletin.


Councillor H Whitbread advised that she would be happy to get a copy sent to Councillor Wixley and look at also attaching it to the Bulletin.