To receive an update from Cllr Brunt, Leader of the Council, and to consider any issues that arise.
The Committee received a presentation from Councillor M.A. Brunt, Leader of the Council, on his leadership priorities, Council initiatives and projects undertaken during the year to date, future challenges facing the Council, and future engagement with the Overview and Scrutiny Committee.
The Leader identified that his initial leadership priorities included housing delivery, championing residents’ issues, the development of the Council’s new Corporate Plan, increasing engagement and trust with Members, and improved communication.
It was noted that the Council was seeking to support the provision of affordable housing for those in need of it within the borough, in addition to its existing commitment to address homelessness. It was identified that there were a number of issues facing residents, such as potential reductions in children’s centre provision following changes by Surrey County Council. It was noted that the Council would not have the capacity to directly resolve all issues such as this, but that it would work and coordinate with partner organisations to seek the best solutions for residents. The development of the new Corporate Plan was noted to be ongoing, with additional consultation with Members and residents to come. The Leader identified that he was working to support effective engagement between Executive and other Members and that he was hopeful that a positive approach to engagement between all Members would be maintained. It was noted that the Council was continuing to improve its communication offer, including expanding its webcasting programme to additional meetings, including those of the Committee.
Progress on a number of Organisation initiatives was noted, including updates to organisational structure, a review of Corporate Governance, greater transparent and effective ways of working, service and financial planning for 2019/20, and the Council’s ‘Be A Councillor’ campaign.
Progress on a number of People initiatives was noted, including the completion of a temporary accommodation site to address homelessness, the Cromwell Road and Pitwood Park housing schemes to support affordable homes for local people, support for residents around the roll-out of Universal Credit, and a campaign to raise awareness of modern slavery.
Progress on a number of Place initiatives was noted, including the Council’s new Development Management Plan, the Marketfield Way development project, roll-out of recycling services to flats within the borough, and the reduction in the use of single-use plastics.
It was noted that the Council continued to face a number a challenges, particularly relating to financial pressures due to a reduction in funding received, and increased pressure on services as a result of expected and forthcoming cuts by Surrey County Council, which was itself facing significant financial pressures. It was noted that the Council would continue to seek to provide as much support as possible to the borough and its residents, and would be taking steps to ensure that it remained financially self-sufficient, including the development of a new investment plan and an effective commercial workstream.
The Leader noted that he was grateful for the support provided by the Committee as an effective ‘critical friend’, and hoped to expand the level of engagement with the Committee in future, including additional pre-scrutiny of major decisions and follow up on the delivery of projects.
The Committee considered and discussed the presentation. There were a number of questions and comments relating to the following topics:
· Residents’ Issues and Surrey County Council finances. It was noted that the financial pressures faced by Surrey County Council meant that it would need to make significant savings and efficiencies, and that these were had the potential to result in reduced support for a range of services, including children’s and youth centres and libraries. It was noted that whilst the Borough Council did not have sufficient resources to provide such services outside of its responsibilities directly, it would nonetheless seek to support residents and work with the County Council to seek the best outcomes. The importance of such services and their potentially far-reaching consequences was noted.
· Member Engagement. It was noted that Members would appreciate opportunities to meet with the Council’s Heads of Service, to help support effective Member-Officer engagement. It was identified that the Council was considering the best way to facilitate such engagement, and was hopeful that there would be an opportunity for such in the near future. In response to a query from a Committee Member, the Chief Executive confirmed that he had a strong and positive working relationship with the Leader.
· Future Commercial Activities. It was noted that the Council would await the outcome of the commercial governance review and consider its findings before commencing any future commercial ventures, with the exception of any property transactions.
It was identified that the options for future commercial activities would be considered as part of the development of the Council’s investment strategy, along with general considerations of the Council’s desired balanced of risk and return from its investments. It was identified that the choice of activities would be supported by data on the Council’s service areas and consideration of actions undertaken by other local authorities, and that activities would continue to work to provide social benefits to the borough.
· Communication with Residents. It was identified that the Council was continuing to develop its communication offering, and that this included exploring options around existing and potential future social media engagements. It was noted that the Council would continue to ensure support was provided for residents who needed access to the Council via phone or in person. It was identified that a forthcoming online ‘My Council’ service would offer residents the option to access all their Council related activities in one online location.
· Future Overview & Scrutiny Engagement. Committee members expressed their support for increased pre-scrutiny of Council decision making. It was identified that Member engagement with the development of Council plans and actions would be sought both via formal scrutiny at the Committee, and via wider engagement and consultation with Members. The Leader indicated that he would be happy to provide future updates to the Committee, and would welcome feedback from Committee members on when they would like to receive such updates.
· Housing. It was identified that there was a wide range of options available to the Council to support the provision of suitable and affordable housing for local people. It was identified that the Council had engaged expert consultants to support the development of the Council’s housing strategy, and that consultation with Members would be undertaken to support the development of the plan. It was identified that the levels of house prices and average wages within the borough presented a considerable financial challenge to individuals seeking to live and work within the borough. It was identified that there was the potential to consider options to support housing affordability and availability beyond the government’s technical definition of affordable housing. It was noted to be important for support to considered for many groups within society, as affordability was a challenge for many sectors of the population.
· The ‘Be A Councillor’ campaign. Members indicated their support for the work of the ‘Be A Councillor’ campaign and its objectives of ensuring that Councillors were representative of the borough, and that all sectors of the population had the opportunity to stand for election, particularly those who had been historically underrepresented. Members thanked the officers who supported the campaign for their efforts.
· Constitutional Updates. The Leader identified that it had been some time since the Council had reviewed its constitution, and that he would welcome suggestions from Members on any areas requiring review. It was identified that a potential area for consideration was the process around questions at Council meetings.
· The Corporate Plan. It was identified that the new Corporate Plan would seek to be reflect the views of all Members, and that there would be a number of forthcoming opportunities for consultation. It was identified that the plan would provide an important framework of principles for the work of the Council in the next five years.
· Modern Slavery. Members thanked the contributors to the Modern Slavery awareness campaign for their work. It was identified that the Council didn’t receive reports of potential incidents directly, but worked in partnership with the police. It was identified that additional feedback was expected to be received in future.
RESOLVED that the update from Cllr M.A. Brunt, Leader of the Council, be noted.