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 a question without notice.
(a) Waste Management Contract
Councillor S Murray advised his question was to Environmental and Technical Services Portfolio Holder and expressed concerns regarding the shortage of suitably qualified HGV drivers and that there were contingency plans put in place and what were these plans. Secondly what contingency plans are being made to deal with the issue around the shortage of wheelie bins.
Councillor N Avey advised that the Council were constantly discussing with Biffa driver issues and contingency plans around the countrywide shortage of HGV driver and that was affecting Biffa. They have advised us that they were managing to have enough drivers to meet the needs and I would like to praise Biffa, especially over the last couple of difficult years, at the wonderful service they had given the Council throughout the Pandemic and even with the HGV driver shortage they are providing a terrific and professional service to the residents of Epping Forest.
Regarding the wheelie bin shortage I believe there are still stocks of both the household waste and the green waste wheelie bins but as the Portfolio Holder I will be looking at that situation and find out why there was a shortage and when it would be resolved.
(b) Viability assessments on planning applications
Councillor K Williamson advised his question was to the Planning and Sustainability Portfolio Holder and stated with the viability assessments on planning applications that do not meet the 40% affordable housing criteria, who pays the consultants’ fees for Epping Forest District Council (EFDC). If EFDC pay these then shouldn’t it be on a similar basis to party wall awards where the applicant pays. He further expressed concerns with the basis that the 40% could not be achieved due to enhanced specifications.
Councillor N Bedford stated that the starting point for affordable housing provision for residential developments providing 11 units or more and a requirement of 40% of the total provided in-situ, as set out in the emerging Local Plan. The target set out in this policy included provision for the amount of affordable housing permitted under the policy to be subject to viability, in practice this meant that if the applicant wished to argue that their scheme could not afford to make the required on-site provision, or an offsite affordable housing contribution, in lieu of an on-site provision, the applicant could seek to make their case through the submission of detailed viability assessments and evidence to the Council.
The Council used viability consultants to consider the information and could decide to accept a lower amount of affordable housing where viability issues had been clearly demonstrated. The cost of the consultant was paid for by the applicant, the cost of what they have purchased for their site was not a determining factor in the viability argument and was not an issue for the Council.
The Council are looking to see if they could provide some member training or a better understanding of how this complicated issue could be more easily understood.
(c) Qualis debt
Councillor S Heap advised his question was to the Finance, Qualis Client and Economic Development Portfolio Holder and asked if it would be unfair to describe Qualis’s performance as a million pounds in debt and not a home built.
Councillor J Philip replied no.
(d) Customer dissatisfaction
Councillor Jon Whitehouse advised his question was to the Customer and Partnerships Portfolio Holder and asked about the customer dissatisfaction with residents not getting responses to queries and issues raised. In the Portfolio Holders report it was presented as mainly a technical issue to do with tracking software. I can understand that tracking software may have a part to play, but when the Portfolio Holder looks at this issue, could he also look at the wider picture in terms of staff who are motivated and engaged and understand their place in the organisation and have their workload balanced to enable them to respond to queries and staff that are not motivated or feel they don’t fit in or just don’t have the capacity to do everything they are expected to do. This problem cannot just be a technical issue there was obviously a wider issue.
Councillor S Kane stated that it was a valid point and agreed that it was not exclusively technical issues, there were staff involved, and over the last 18 months these staff were learning to operate in a completely different way, some working remotely and some working in the office and then the technical problems come back in again because of the way the telephone system works and group ringing. The Council were working on a number of front end challenges with one of the biggest challenges being a problem with staffing levels and the Council were constantly playing catch-up with staff moving on, being seconded or leaving. Staffing issues in terms of numbers of people, communication channels needed to stay open so there was team work, which was valuable in providing customer service to maintain direct connections between the support workers and the customers, also not forgetting the technical issues.
The Council recognises that not all residents are capable to go the digital route and a front facing service must continue either by telephone or face to face and we were working to resolve these issues.
He reiterated that anyone who comes across any difficulties that residents have encountered to please feed back to him with specifics of any issues.
(e) New Platform for Land Searches
Councillor P Bhanot advised that his question was to the Corporate Services Portfolio Holder and asked if he could provide more details on the rollout of the new platform for local authority land searches.
Councillor D Sunger stated that he was pleased to announce that the migration of the local land charges database had been successfully moved to the cloud environment. EFDC officers have completed all of the tasks in preparation of the date that would be migrated to Her Majesty’s Land Registry (HMLR) database. The migration of the HMLR database will take place in quarter 4, HMLR have not yet confirmed a specific date when this will be rolled out. He advised he was pleased to report that the Council was on track to receive a transition fee of £75,000. The cost of the ICT applications required will be taken from the £75,000, costs have not yet been confirmed.
The HMLR database will allow the public to complete their own searches when buying a property, the searches will be available online 24/7. He thanked the officers for all their work into getting this ready for the database rollout especially Seth Mahadoo, Daniel Harris and Dawn Tracey.
(f) Budget shortfall for 2022/23
Councillor P Bolton advised that his question was to the Finance, Qualis Client and Economic Development Portfolio Holder and asked him to comment on the potential shortfall in next year’s budget of £1.5m, particularly in respect of the money spent on the refurbishment of the Civic Offices and whether Qualis has had an impact on the situation and how much reserves are involved.
Councillor J Philip advised as stated in his report the Council were currently looking at a potential gap between the amount the Council needed to spend and the amount that would be coming in and this was in the region of £1.5m. Although the issues Councillor Bolton had raised were good it was important to note that when you were looking at the budget in terms of the Council’s ongoing expenses there were two different areas to look at, one was the expenditure which was where the £1.5m came from and secondly there was capital expenditure and it was the capital expenditure. It was capital expenditure that was used to refurbish the Civic Offices and it was worth pointing out that by renting out the second floor of the Civic Offices, a significant revenue stream would be coming in from that, it would not help the Council for next year but it will thereafter and we will therefor get a return for the capital spent on the Civic Offices.
In terms of Qualis, they had a significant impact on the budget but Qualis are making the job of the Council much easier and the revenue the Council were receiving from Qualis in terms of the margin of the loans we have given them mean that the Council only have £1.5m to look for. Qualis pay a significantly higher rate of interest that the Council were able to get on the Public Works Loans than we have for those particular loans. The Conder building had now been sold to Qualis and the Council were now getting the interest on that and it would be shown in the budget for next year. He stated that he would be working closely with Qualis to see if there was anything further that could be done to reduce the deficit.
Finally, onto the reserves, the Council were obliged to keep a certain level of reserves, it was prudent to keep roughly half of what the Council receive from Council Tax as reserves for the forthcoming year.
There were two main reasons why the Council’s reserves are lower going into 2022/23 was an issue with the 2019/20 accounts which when agreed with the Auditors what needed to be done resulted in a reduction in the reserves that were available. When the budget was agreed for 2021/22 it was agreed to make use of some of the Council’s reserves further to make this year easier for the Council and to reduce the pressure on our residents. Those two issues combined brought the Council’s reserves down very close to the minimum that the Council could actually reasonably retain active and therefore that meant the Council could not make significant use of those reserves in the budget for 2022/23 to reduce the pressure.
Significant progress was being made towards this deficit with Cabinet Members looking closely at their Directorates to see where savings could be made and hopefully this gap would be closed in the appropriate time.
(g) Benefits for Local Businesses
Councillor J McIvor advised his question was to the Finance, Qualis Client and Economic Development Portfolio Holder and stated that in the recent Chancellor’s budget, which included many benefits for local businesses and tailored benefits specifically for the hospitality and fitness sectors and asked if the Portfolio Holder would be able to advise how the Council would be promoting those benefits to the various local businesses so they could make full use of the benefits, such as, a reduction in rates. He also stated that any major news which would affect the Epping Forest District should be reported at Council, in the Chamber before it made the press.
Councillor J Philip advised in terms of publicity to our local businesses that there was a monthly newsletter that went out to businesses, unfortunately the copy date for that was Wednesday which made it a bit late to get anything published. He stated that he had made a request to see if we could get anything included to do with the rate changes but was still waiting for an answer. An in depth article would be published in the next publication.
It was worth noting that the agendas were published before a meeting, in accordance with legislation, therefore the news does become public knowledge before the meeting and that was why, when we meet in the Chamber, news stories have already been published and sometimes these stories were misrepresented and are corrected at the meetings.
(h) Supporting Elderly Residents during the Winter months
Councillor K Rizvi advised his question was to the Community and Regulatory Services Portfolio Holder and stated as a local GP and someone acutely aware of the forthcoming winter pressures that he was keen to understand how the District Council supported the elderly residents during the winter months, so for the benefit of the public and my member colleagues could you explain what the Council did in this respect.
Councillor A Patel stated that the County Council had the statutory responsibility to the elderly through Adult Social Care, we as a District Council support elderly residents in a different way and the team that lead on predominantly supporting these residents was the Community Culture and Wellbeing Team. On the 11 October the team held a ‘Stay Well this Winter’ community event to which they hold every year and I am pleased to advise that this was the first event of this kind to be held at the Community Hub at the Civic Offices. A number of partner organisations showcased the work that they did and spreading key messages around health and wellbeing. Residents that attended were also offered the flu vaccine whilst they attended. The next event would be taking place in Waltham Abbey on the 2 December.
The Community Culture and Wellbeing Team also support the 22 Community Champions that are available across the district and essentially the work of the Community Champions was to reach out to older residents and proactively signpost them to support services which they feel are needed whilst raising awareness around local befriending groups.
The Council work with partner organisations like the NHS and the Council were able to deliver the ‘Falls Prevention Programme’ which helped promote strength and conditioning in a bid to prevent falls in elderly residents. The Council were also trialling a range of other services that would support elderly residents.
(i) Late objection to the EFDC Local Plan Submission Version
Councillor C C Pond advised his question was to the Leader of Council and asked was he surprised to read press reports that Harlow District Council were at a very late stage of objecting to certain aspects of the Epping Forest Local Plan submission version and what did he think would come of these objections and how would they be processed in the timetable which was now very strictly limited of the Inspector.
Councillor C Whitbread stated that he was surprised but that had always been the position of the Conservative Group in Harlow they had issues that they wanted addressing and they have a right to make comments as does everyone else. The most important thing that they needed to bear in mind was that the Harlow sites weren’t included in the main modifications. He stated that he looked forward to having a Local Plan that can be seen through to the end.
(j) Council House Building Programme - Ward Member Consultation
Councillor D Wixley advised his question was to the Housing Services Portfolio Holder and asked why the correct process had not been followed by the Council Housebuilding Programme with a particular site in his Ward.
The process was that Ward Members would meet with Officers to discuss the proposed site affecting their Wards before a formal planning application was submitted. He stated that he was surprised to find on the upcoming Area Plans South Agenda an application in his Ward. There were special circumstances relating to this application, which he would have liked to discuss with the Service Manager for Development, he advised that he had previously discussed with her the possibility of arranging a meeting which had yet to take place. He stated that while he appreciated that this was a resubmission of a previously approved plan, he still felt that the current practice of consultation with Ward Members should have been applied in this case. Therefore, would the Portfolio Holder use her influence, to have this application removed from next week’s Area Plans Sub-Committee South agenda, pending the accepted process of consultation with the Service Manager for Development.
Councillor H Whitbread apologised that a meeting had not been arranged with the Service Manager for Development that that she would chase that now and make sure that a conversation would be had by the end of the week. She further added that she would consult with officers to find out the reasoning around this decision. It was very important that as the Council moves forward with the Council Housebuilding Programme that officers do engage with Ward Members which has been a foundation of the process. The Portfolio Holder advised that she would be in contact with Councillor Wixley the following day once she had an answer.