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) Grant Aid
Councillor Murray advised his question was to the Community and Regulatory Services Portfolio Holder and stated that it was to do with a press release issued on the 21 March regarding Grant Aid. Councillor Patel said in that press release that he was delighted to approve 30 applications totalling £85,000 of Grant Aid and the Council recognised the significant impact that our amazing local community and voluntary sector groups who in turn supported the positive well health and wellbeing of our residents. He asked why did Councillor Patel feel able to put forward and be part of a leadership party, that the budget papers for 2022/23 which consisted of 147 pages and tucked away on page 105 there was one line in the budget that showed the grants to voluntary organisation in the new financial year had been cut by over 50%. I thought it was important, after the fine words Councillor Patel had said for this year, and wanted to know why was he able to go along with the budget and a 50% cut for the next municipal year. Councillor Murray stated that he could find no explanation or notification of this cut so why Councillor Patel, as the Portfolio Holder would accept that cut.
The Chairman asked Councillor J Philip to answer this question as it was to do with finance and the Council budget which fell into his remit.
Councillor J Philip thanked Councillor Murray for his question and stated that there was a fixed pot of money for 2022/23 to spend, there were difficult choices to be made with the grant aid and the frontline services we provide and if more money was put into the grant aid then some services would have to be cut. The budget papers went to Cabinet where it was debated and no objections were made to the grant aid being cut. Councillor Philip stated that he did not want to cut any of the Council frontline services and as he had said at Cabinet the next financial year would be a very tough year for the Council. Council Philip stressed that the Council was aiming to come in under budget and if so that meant that the Council could be more generous with the Grant Aid in the 2023/24 financial year.
Councillor S Murray thanked Councillor Philip for his answer but stated that his question was quite specific to which Portfolio Holder he asked his question to and stated that he had great respect for the Chairman but didn’t think it was up to her or the Cabinet to decide who would answer his question and he would like the Portfolio Holder in line with his press release to answer his question.
Councillor J Philip stated that Councillor Murray asked a question regarding the budget and advised that it was brought forward as a Cabinet, there were trade-offs within it but the Cabinet had a corporate responsibility when they brought the budget forward. He advised that the budget came under his portfolio and he was responsible for balancing it out.
Councillor S Murray asked once more was the Portfolio Holder he asked saying he was unprepared to answer the question or was he happy for the answer that the Finance Portfolio Holder gave.
Councillor A Patel advised that as it had already been stated by Councillor Philip it was a budget related question and that Councillor Philip had given a full and comprehensive answer to the question.
(b) Places Leisure Centre Loughton
Councillor R Brookes advised that her question was to the Environmental and Technical Services Portfolio Holder, Councillor N Avey and stated that t had been a substantial increase in the fees for leisure centre members, which had been held back for two years, but what had affected many of the residents was yet again adult lane swimming was much more reduced for the Easter holiday period and I wondered if you would investigate and talk to places leisure about it.
Councillor N Avey advised that he would be happy to take that up with officers and Places Leisure.
(c) Highway Rangers
Councillor P Stalker advised that his question was to the Environmental and Technical Services Portfolio Holder, Councillor N Avey and stated that he had recently received some very positive feedback from residents regarding the Highway Rangers and asked for an update on the current activities and status of the Highway Rangers.
Councillor N Avey stated that the Highway Rangers continued to be a very successful initiative and as noted in his report the Highway Rangers have taken a number of recent projects including district wide roadside cleaning and repair, assisting with the removal of trees on the highways during the recent storms and providing traffic management for other teams. A new full time Ranger had recently been recruited which brought the team up to full strength. He hoped in the future that the services of the Highway Rangers could be expanded and that they would continue to bring excellent service to the residents and the district.
(d) Government Benefit for Council Taxpayers
Councillor A Lion advised that his question was the Finance, Qualis Client and Economic Development Portfolio Holder and stated as we emerged from the pandemic and we understand the pressures facing many families, as global inflation levels increased, he asked the Portfolio Holder how the £150 that the Government have allocated to council taxpayers was going to be developed and managed in Epping Forest for the benefit of the residents.
Councillor J Philip advised that the Council had been awarded money by the Government to pay residents in the Council tax bands A-D which consisted of £150 towards the cost of living. The Council had received almost £4.8 million which equated to approximately 32 thousand homes within the district who pay council tax. For the council tax payers that pay by direct debit this will automatically be paid into their bank accounts by the end of April. For those who do not pay by direct debit they will receive a letter asking them to apply for the £150 grant and to provide payment details to enable the Council to make those payments this would have to be done by September this year.
For residents that are challenged with properties sitting above band D there was a small discretionary fund that would be allocated to residents who applied, for example people who might be property rich but poor in terms of income.
(e) Planning Application by a Buckhurst Hill Parish Councillor
Councillor S Heap advised that his question was to the Planning Portfolio Holder, Councillor N Bedford and asked why a meeting between senior planning officials and Conservative members of the district to discuss an application by a Conservative parish member in Buckhurst Hill eight days prior to that meeting being heard. He asked if this was common practice and did the Portfolio Holder think that it sent out the right signals in terms of fairness and justice.
Councillor N Bedford replied that this matter was being investigated by EFDC Officers that there was no further comment at this stage.
Councillor C Whitbread stated that the meeting was not outside of a normal process and the meeting was to discuss a planning process and not a planning application and he thought it was out of order for Councillor Heap to have asked that question this evening.
(f) Council Housing Allocation
Councillor D Stocker advised that his question was to the Housing Services Portfolio Holder, Councillor H Whitbread and asked if she could confirm that the council houses that became available would be allocated to local residents that were on the waiting list and not people from outside of the area.
Councillor H Whitbread advised that this was in her report and at a recent Cabinet Committee housing policies were passed which reinforced the Councils commitment that local residents on the waiting list would come first. In order to be on the Council housing waiting list you need to have lived in the district for seven years.
In March 2022 a number of units in Waltham Abbey were handed over to Epping Forest tenants and there were more to come this month in Beech Walk, Waltham Abbey.
The Housing Team have informed me today that there was a huge list of new homes to be handed over very soon.
(g) Police Hub
Councillor P Bolton advised that his question was to the Housing Services Portfolio Holder, Councillor H Whitbread and stated that a technical point in her report which advised that two police officers were joining and presumably these are on rotation and not new.
There had also been reports of anti-social behaviour within North Weald and he suspected other wards as well and asked if the Portfolio Holder was happy that the Police Hub was able to target these problems and deal with them efficiently.
Councillor H Whitbread advised that Epping Forest District Council originally had a service level agreement with Essex Police to hire three police officers who worked exclusively within the Epping Forest District and because we have a good relationship with Essex Police they have given us a free Police Officer now making four in total who work from our policing hub. The two new Police Officers were to replace the vacancies that we had for a short period.
In relation to specific targets for anti-social behaviour, particularly in Blenheim Square in North Weald officers have worked really closely in partnership with Essex Police as well as the Councils Community Safety and Resilience team at the District Council to carry out targeted patrols. They also do some work with the youth and youth offenders and carry out patrols with the roving CCTV to try to alleviate the problems.
If any members are aware of anti-social behaviour issues within their wards do get in touch with the Community Resilience Team who do a really good job at targeting particular problems of anti-social behaviour in the district.
(h) Weed Spraying
Councillor D Wixley advised his question was to the Environmental and Technical Services Portfolio Holder, Councillor N Avey and stated that his question was to do with a very angry phone call that he had received today regarding weed spraying, which happens this time of the year and stated that where this had been going on it was causing a scorched earth appearance around the base of trees and along verges, he asked why was it necessary, which chemical was used, was the chemical entirely harmless and the resident was particularly concerned about the effect on potential wild flowers and insects.
Councillor Wixley did not expect the Portfolio Holder to be able to answer his question this evening but asked if he could look into it and come back with an answer or for wider interest reply in the Bulletin.
Councillor N Avey replied that residents complained if the Council didn’t spray enough and complained if they sprayed too much he advised that he would get the technical information and would publish the information in the Bulletin for the benefit of all members.
(i) Tree Planting Scheme on Council Owned Estates
Councillor K Williamson advised his question was to the Housing Services Portfolio Holder, Councillor H Whitbread and asked if she could inform members regarding the tree planting scheme on Council owned estates.
Councillor H Whitbread advised that the tree planting programme was the result of grant funding from the Forestry Commission for 2,500 trees to plant across the district on Council owned estates. Conversations between the different groups as to where they thought these trees should go. A few weeks ago 500 were planted in Limes Farm at Chigwell with the help of Councillor Lion who was ably digging some holes and planting trees and numerous other trees were going to be planted in Loughton and Debden estates.
(j) Electric Charging Points
Councillor J Lea advised that her question was to the Environmental and Technical Services Portfolio Holder, Councillor N Avey and stated that she had recently been on holiday with a friend, who had an electric car and they found only one electric charging point that worked on the journey home and ended up being brought home by an AA vehicle recovery lorry in this brand new electric car. Everywhere they stopped you wasn’t aware in the electric charging points were working or not until you have downloaded the app for the charging point to find out it was not working after four or five stops the last one being on the motorway, they had four charging points, they were told that they had not been working for about five months. She asked the Portfolio Holder about the charging points the Council were installing in the car parks and asked if you had to download an app to find out if they were working or not or could you just put your card in and pay for it. In her opinion she did not think it was viable to have an electric car.
Councillor N Avey stated that Councillor Lea had highlighted the problems with owning an electric vehicle and that was why he did not own one. There were a multiplicity of companies around the country that provide these charging points and if you are doing a long journey the last thing you want to find on a motorway late at night was charging points that did not work so you are stuck at the services for the rest of the night. He advised that he would check to see what the ones were that the Council were installing but he expected that there would be an app attached to them. As a Council we should look to make sure that we had the most efficient system by the best provider and stated that he would find out and provide some more detail.