To receive a verbal update on the Council’s response to the Covid-19 emergency and the Recovery workstreams.
Members received a verbal update on the Council’s response to the Covid-19 emergency and the Recovery workstreams from the Leader, Cllr M. Brunt, and Deputy Leader, Cllr T. Schofield.
The Leader praised the Council’s workforce as all staff had gone above and beyond in response to the pandemic. This was changing the way and residents saw the Council as a more human face. This reflected well for the future. There had also been fantastic support from Members who were working hard in their communities. The Harlequin support centre had been set up and 1550 emergency food packages, 320 prescriptions deliveries and over 3000 hot meals had been cooked and delivered to vulnerable residents. This was despite not providing meals on wheels for 20 plus years. It was supporting local foodbanks and charities and 23,000 items had been distributed to existing foodbanks and charities. It was also supporting Voluntary Action Reigate & Banstead to coordinate the 900 new volunteers.
The Council was also supporting homeless people. This would not end when lockdown finishes as the Council has a responsibility for them. This also linked into its commitment to provide affordable housing and do more to deliver our homes ourselves.
The Leader reported that the Council has highest number of shielded residents in the county. It had contacted over 4,600 shielded residents to understand the support they need and made over 100 calls a week to residents to check in with them and provide a friendly ear. The impact had been huge. Volunteers had also been used including support from the YMCA. Members of staff had been making calls from their homes. The Customer Contact Team had been answering and assisting over 1,250 callers each week.
The back-office teams such as ICT and HR also had to adapt quickly as the Council moved 250 people from the office to working in a home environment almost overnight. The Council was also one of the first to get out business rates grants to local businesses and worked with suppliers to pay businesses promptly.
It was noted that there had been a huge amount of additional waste and recycling, described as ‘like Christmas’ every day and this was up by 30 per cent. The garden waste service had been suspended. The key reason was to ensure that the Council could maintain the essential services of refuse collections and recycling. RBBC collects paper and card weekly unlike other Councils who collect this fortnightly. Two crews were taken away from the garden waste service and were reallocated to other rounds. There was also a reduction in staff as some were unwell or self-isolating. The Council did successfully manage to maintain the rounds of waste and recycling without a break. The cleansing team were dealing with a massive increase in fly tipping incidents (275 incidents in the last week alone). A lot of rubbish had been left at our recycling sites including huge amounts of boxes and cardboard.
The Redstone Cemetery team worked hard to ensure they could cope with additional burials. There had not been a huge increase, but they had to make provision on that site in case there had been.
The Leader reported that more than 90 per cent of staff remained at work. They had demonstrated that staff can be effective while not working in the office. This was a future opportunity to look at where Council staff will work from in the future. There had been a reduction in journeys and subsequent pollution, with an improved quality of life.
The Leader concluded by saying that the crisis had demonstrated the best parts of local government through the boroughs and districts who were closest to residents and could be agile and respond quickly to the changing needs of residents.
Members made comments and observations on the following areas:
· Redeployment of staff – Members asked through the Advance Questions process how many staff had been redeployed and working on Covid-19 duties and how many on ‘business as usual’ duties and which services had been effectively curtailed or withdrawn? It was noted that ICT staff had largely stayed in their current roles. Some Planning staff had been redeployed to support the Harlequin and making welfare calls. Staff were returning to their usual roles. There were approximately 90 redeployments on a full or part-time basis. The Depot operations staff had largely remained on business as usual. Some redeployments had been made into the depot to support refuse collections. Some services had been curtailed due to government guidance. Members would receive a written response to give the full picture. Members thanked the staff at the Council and paid tribute to those making vital welfare calls. Members asked if the Leader could thank all the volunteers, for example in the north of the borough as the response had been fantastic. The Leader agreed and said the communications team had been planning how to mark a public thank you at the end of the pandemic. There had also been a lot of neighbour to neighbour help.
· Local shops – Members asked how the Council was supporting local shops back into operation and how could areas for cafes outside be doubled or tripled. However, parking spaces were still needed so there would need to be a balance in the towns. As more people work from home more than one day a week, the Leader talked about creating spaces in our town centres that people can use which brings them into local towns rather than into London.
· Climate sustainability – this strategy did not go to Executive or Council before lockdown. How would it be part of the new normal and part of the recovery workstreams? The Leader said work on climate sustainability had not stopped and recruitment for an environmental sustainability officer was continuing and should be a focus for the Council.
Deputy Leader, Cllr T. Schofield, gave an update on finances and the recovery workstreams. The Council had been providing financial assistance to households through reductions in their council tax. The Council has also provided money support advice about accessing Universal Credit. It had distributed over £21m of Government grants to 1,600 local businesses and had launched a further discretionary grant scheme for businesses that have not been able to access other support, with an additional £1.16m of funding available. In the most recent return to the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), the Council had reported that so far unbudgeted expenditure associated with the emergency response was £1.177m and there is a forecast reduction in service income receipts of £2.260m. Potential implications for precepting authorities (including this Council) due to reductions in council tax and business rates was £7.270m. To date, the funding received from Government was £1.525m. Over the short term, the Council has sufficient contingency budgets and reserves to accommodate the pressures. Over the longer term any legacy impacts will need to be taken into account when updating the Medium-Term Financial Plan for 2021/22 onwards.
Members made the following observations and comments:
· Precept returns from other authorities – it was noted that by law the Council has to pay the full precept to Surrey Police and Surrey County Council even if this money is not collected. These authorities then return the money when the year-end position is confirmed. How would this affect the Council’s working cash flow? It was noted that the Council was communicating these issues to the local MP and senior levels of government. Members were told that the level of council tax receipts had held up remarkably well so far and not many people had cancelled their payments. There were many people though who had asked for deferred payment plans.
· Income receipts – the forecast loss of income was just over £2m. Income from commercial rents was a relatively small percentage of this total and only a couple of tenants were having difficulty in paying. There was a potential future issue when the furlough scheme ended as there could be a rush of redundancies which may change office space requirements for some of the Council’s tenants.
· Recovery programmes and workstreams – the Council had identified five workstreams to be part of the Recovery to define the ‘new normal’ and covering community business recovery. Teams in these workstreams were made up of a mix of Executive Portfolio Holders and Heads of Service working together to solve issues and bring together a vision of what the new council could look like. It was looking at a transition period up to July/August to go from an emergency response to transition out of lockdown for vulnerable residents. Then there would be a wider range of Council services brought onto a more ‘normal’ footing towards the end of the year. Implementing the changes was not going to be a quick fix. For example, there were some fundamental changes and demands placed on the ICT operation to provide the extra support and continue with a mix of remote and on-site working across the Council. It was agreed to circulate more information to the Committee when it was available, for example, on the plans for the Harlequin, supporting vulnerable members, including those made redundant, and supporting businesses. It was noted that signs and posters were being put up in the High Streets of the four main town centres to keep people at safe distances. Garden waste services was being restarted as well as the reintroduction of parking charges. The Benefits team were now starting to follow up on non-payment and deferred payment of council tax and NNDR. The Recovery Steering Group co-ordinated the work of the workstreams and agreed resources.
· Cutting verges – a proposal had been made to keep verges uncut to allow wildflowers to flourish. It was noted that the Council was starting to cut verges not just the sightlines on the roads. More information would be obtained from the Portfolio Holder.
In summing up, the Leader said he would continue to provide regular Member updates which were now held fortnightly. MPs were also briefed fortnightly. The Communications team had produced double the amount of material in the last few weeks than in last year which residents have appreciated.
Cllr M. Brunt welcomed the new Recovery Scrutiny Panel which would give direct feedback to the Committee. The Council will maintain its dedicated Covid-19 website and provide residents with information as it is available. It was also using social media channels to respond directly to comments. Members were a central part of the communications with residents and the Council would do more to make it easier for Members to share information and updates with residents.
Chair of the Committee, Cllr N. Harrison thanked both the Leader and Deputy Leader for attending and updating the Committee, and thanked the officers supporting them in this vital work for residents. The Overview & Scrutiny Panel would look forward to working with them.