Agenda item

Portfolio Holder Briefing - Organisation Portfolios

To receive briefings from the three Portfolio Holders – Organisation – Executive Members for Finance & Governance, Investment and Companies and Corporate Policy and Resources.

Minutes:

Members considered the Portfolio Holder Briefings – Organisation Portfolios from the Portfolio Holders for Finance and Governance (Councillor T. Schofield), Corporate Policy and Resources (Councillor V. Lewanski) and Investment and Companies (Councillor T. Archer). It was noted that the three Executive Members had received Advance questions which included their two or three most important  objectives in their portfolios for the year and what they regard as the biggest risks and challenges.

Councillor T. Schofield said that the main priorities in the Finance and Governance area were to maintain effective financial programmes and controls that support the long-term financial sustainability of the Council. It would continue to provide and improve clear and transparent financial information. He was working with his three Heads of Service to ensure high standards of professionalism in the provision of services and support both to the organisation and to residents.

Finance priorities included continuing to develop MTFP budget forecasts taking into account new pressures and opportunities and uncertainties and ensure borrowing and investments are in line within the Treasury Management Strategy limits and continue to develop year-end closedown processes that have been affected this year. Challenges included continuing to manage the financial impacts of COVID-19 pandemic and planning for implementation of the Relative Needs & Resources (Fair Funding) review and other proposed changes to Government funding streams.

On Revenues, Benefits & Fraud the priority was working towards a commercial trading company and further developing external work to provide further new income streams. The ongoing adverse impacts of COVID-19 on collection rates for council tax and business rates was a risk.

Governance priorities included planning and delivery of elections in May 2021 which now included three concurrent elections including the PCC election with pressure to count and deliver the results. Also, a refresh and review of the standards protocol and the meetings cycle to enhance effective working relations between councillors and officers. The impact of COVID-19 on staffing and management of elections was a risk mitigated by detailed planning and risk assessments. Legal priorities included recruitment of a budgeted Property and Planning Lawyer and training and development of the trainee Solicitor and Paralegal. Risks included recruitment and retention of skilled and qualified lawyers.

Members asked questions and discussed the following areas:

·         Local elections – Members asked what would happen if the local elections in May were postponed again and what the financial implications would be if this happened. Officers confirmed that the government had been very clear that it did not want to postpone the elections again. There were financial implications to run three elections in a covid-secure way and keep residents and staff safe. The Council was lobbying for additional money from Government for this purpose. It was not known yet what the exact figure would be for running the three elections, but officers would keep councillors informed. There may be savings for running three elections on one day and the budget from 2020 had been carried forward. It needed the right PPE and Perspex screens to protect staff and ensure polling stations and the count were covid-secure.

·         Procurement – Members had asked an Advance Question on the savings realised in the costs of goods and services purchased through the new procurement arrangements. It was noted that the use of the outsourced service had given the Council a saving. However, the way in which procurement has been historically tracked and recorded has not leant itself to tracking savings and now that the arrangement is embedded, we are beginning to collate that information in order to calculate overall improvements on a comparable basis year on year. It was noted that Members welcomed this and supported this work.

·         Use of borrowing – Members asked about potential borrowing, what this was for and sources of borrowing the money. It was noted that the capital programme funded the Marketfield Way development and house building. It should look for the best possible sources from the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) or other Councils. The Interim Head of Finance said she would respond with a written answer to set out how the budget setting and borrowing works. Members noted that the Council would have to look creatively how to generate income for residents’ best advantage.

Councillor T. Archer, Portfolio Holder for Investments and Companies, set out the key objectives for his portfolio which was to embed the commercial structure to allow the council to confidently take forward the Commercial strategy objectives from a firm foundation with transparency of activity coupled with a competitive standing in the market. Also, to progress the Council’s major commercial projects such as mobilisation of Project Baseball (building a Crematorium in the Borough) and making progress on the Horley Business Park development. Also, the Council needed to maximise returns on existing assets and get the strategy, staff, approach and governance in place. Challenges included identifying income streams in line with the Council’s agreed risk appetite and which were within the regulations set out on prudential borrowing and other restrictions.

Members asked questions and discussed the following areas:

·         Projects – there would be more detailed information sessions for the Committee once the proposed Crematorium and the Horley Business Park projects had passed planning. Part 1 of the Commercial Strategy was part of this meeting’s agenda for discussion and it committed the Council to an annual action plan which would be reported to Overview and Scrutiny in addition to six-monthly performance updates to the Committee and the Portfolio Holder updates.

·         Clearing woodland near Horley Business Park – Members asked about reports that six acres of woodland near Horley Business Park had been cleared of trees. Councillor T. Archer confirmed that this had not taken place on Council-owned land. It was on privately-owned land that forms part of the land included in the DMP for the intended Horley Business Park and was not done with the Council’s permission or authorisation. The Council had written to the private owners in the strongest possible terms to condemn this action, police were looking into the matter and the Council had placed Tree Preservation Orders on the remaining part of the site. The Council had issued a press release making clear it was not Council action or sanctioned by RBBC in any shape or form.

Councillor V. Lewanski, Portfolio Holder for Corporate Policy and Resources, set out his key objectives to effect change at a Borough level to deliver our sustainability strategy and move it forwards whilst continuing to be dependent on decisions taken at a national level and outside the Council’s control. The Government needs to ensure that the Council has the right ‘tools for the job’ (i.e. powers, policy support etc) but also to commit the investment that will be required to decarbonise our transport, homes and businesses as far as possible.

The second objective on communications and customer contact strategy was to review and update the Customer Contact Strategy and minimise the potential for digital isolation. Especially in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was important that those without easy digital access, were provided with non-digital means of accessing council information and services. This meant using additional communications channels such as radio and newspaper ads and printed flyers. The Council’s data insight team (set up as a project) was also able to identify those particularly vulnerable residents requiring extra welfare support. This was done by combining a range of council data sets including benefit claimant, taxi voucher scheme users, community alarm users and recipients of assisted waste collection services – to identify those in most need of help.

Members asked questions and discussed the following areas:

·         Digital exclusion – Members asked about communications with those residents who do not have the internet, computers or mobile phones and how the Council maintained contact with them. It was confirmed that the main form of communication was either by letters or by telephone calls.

The Council tries and provides the best possible service and made sure that as many residents as possible know how to get in touch via the phone to the contact centre. Members asked whether the opening hours of the switchboard were long enough during the day so people could ring with their queries. It was noted that officers had been in touch with users of the three Community Centres and that the community development workers had been in touch with vulnerable residents. The pandemic had given the opportunity for individuals to be given tech to engage with them digitally, for example, activities such as online bingo run by the Community Centres staff. It was also running a befriending service for some of the most vulnerable people who were receiving a weekly call from the Council. Getting the right information to residents from getting bulky waste picked up to reporting fly tipping was crucial to delivery of services. The Council also made sure that welfare needs were met as well during the pandemic via phone calls. Members would be updated with a written answer about the number of residents in the Borough who did not have mobile phones or access to online services.

Clerk’s note: A written answer was sent to Members following the meeting which said that information about digital exclusion from 2019 (ONS) suggested that 1.4% of the borough population had never used the internet, meanwhile figures from 2017 suggested that 8.2% of adults did not access online services over a three-month period, and around 20% lacked one or more basic digital skills.

·         Sustainability strategy – Members welcomed the comments on the sustainability strategy and the need for policies and investments to support its delivery. Councillor V. Lewanski noted that the strategy aligned with national targets and the Surrey County Council targets. It was ambitious but had to be realistic. The action plan would be used to monitor progress and take account of any changing national policy. The team would look at any activities to update the strategy to help achieve the overall goals. There was also a cross-party working group which was an opportunity to receive Member ideas and questions such as use of solar panels and training for employees on environmental issues.

RESOLVED – that the Portfolio Holder Briefings on the Organisation Portfolios as set out in the report, and the observations of the Committee for consideration by Executive Members be noted.

 

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