To deal with any questions on notice from Members of the Council, in the order in which they have been received.
A period of up to 15 minutes is allocated for the asking and answering of questions. This may be extended at the discretion of the Chairman with the agreement of the majority of those present.
The Chairman advised Members that as these were exceptional circumstances the Leader had agreed to allow one supplementary question in respect of each question asked and he would allow the time spent on questions to be extended as there were no Motions on Notice for this meeting.
Question Submitted by Councillor R. Hunter
Councillor Hunter commented that he recognised the huge amount of work and effort put in by the Cabinet and its Officers to steer the Council through some very difficult months. His question was about the financial security of this Council and its community going forward.
“It appears likely there will be a shortfall between the income this Council has lost due to Covid-19 and the grant it has received in support from Government. Are you concerned that Bromsgrove may receive a less generous settlement from government because it holds a good level of reserves compared to other councils and what will you do to ensure Bromsgrove council tax and rate payers get a fair deal?”
Councillor G. Denaro, the Deputy Leader and Portfolio Holder for Finance and Resources, confirmed that the Council had currently received approx. £1.2m from Government and the current estimate of the financial impact was £2m.
It was also mentioned that no specific funding had been received from Central Government in relation to Leisure provision which was estimated to be a significant cost to the Council and it was hoped that funding would be received in the next month. However, it was unlikely that the Government would provide full funding to mitigate the financial losses arising as a result of the pandemic. The Council’s focus had to remain at present on sustaining essential services and playing its part in responding to the pandemic through the Local Resilience Forum, but attention needed to be now given to Council recovery. This would include ensuring support to its communities, potentially with an increase in unemployment and providing support and advice to businesses to help them increase trade in the new environment. In addition, if additional funding from the Government did not cover all the lost income and extra costs faced by the District Council, and the gap between the two was significant, the Council’s own recovery would focus on where savings had to be made and over what timespan in order to bring the position into line with the Medium Term Financial Plan. It was stressed that it was impossible at this stage to know the scale of the issue to be addressed, as there was no certain knowledge about the totality of Government funding or about the Council’s loss of income and extra costs. It was therefore impossible to predict what steps might be required but it was right that the Council should be candid with local residents and others about what might have to happen. Council would continue to lobby MHCLG that reserves should not be included in the determination of any grant settlements.
Councillor Hunter thanked Councillor Denaro for a detailed and frank assessment of the current position and welcomed his commitment to lobbying Government to get the best possible outcome for this Council. Reference was made to the support that this Council was making available to businesses and Councillor Hunter appreciated the huge amount of effort which had gone in to this and understood that around 2k Bromsgrove businesses had received support administered by this Council. He was however concerned that there were some businesses that may have missed out and he had been contacted recently by a number of businesses and if this was typical he was concerned that there could be a large number of businesses that had missed out. He wanted this Council to commit to undertaking a full appraisal of businesses who had not been able to get support and the reasons for that and commit to helping them as far as it possibly could.
Councillor Denaro asked Councillor Hunter to send him details of the businesses that had contacted him in order for him to ask the Finance Team to investigate further. He also drew Councillor Hunter’s attention to the Cabinet papers for the meeting on 6th August which detailed the amount of money that was being put into economic recovery by the Council.
Question Submitted by Councillor J. King
Councillor King provided background information around the concerns raised in respect of the sudden loss of the 202 bus service.
“One of this Council’s five strategic purposes is to help residents live independent, active and healthy lives. Are you concerned that recent cuts to local bus services are severely impeding this aim and will you lobby the county council to subsidise and protect vital local services in Bromsgrove?”
The Leader responded that public transport and the local bus service did contribute to residents living independent, active and healthy lives. In addition, the BURT community transport scheme that the Council funded also helped to maintain independence for those with poor mobility and disabilities.
Whenever a cut was made to a commercial route/service, Worcestershire County Council (WCC) worked with operators and local Members to mitigate the impact of the cuts where possible. Some of the positive changes around the current issues had come about as a result of the lobbying by local County Members.
The County Council had recently put Bromsgrove forward as the preferred all-electric Bus Town for the County. This would enable a positive knock-on effect for other areas that share the bus routes. WCC were currently rolling out a project to support smaller operators with contactless ticket machines which included operators in the Bromsgrove District and the Council would continue to lobby WCC on this matter.
Councillor King commented that electric buses would not be used when there was no bus service on a route and gave no comfort to the residents who lived between the A38 in Lickey End and the crossroads on Old Birmingham Road. The new bus service, the 44, which was supposed to be a replacement for the 202 is impossible to reach for most of the people who used the bus, between these points. The only bus available to possibly catch would be 182/183, which was a daily bus service. There was no consultation and the parish council did not know of it, nor the bus users.
The Leader responded the decision was made by a commercial company not by WCC. This Council had worked with Officers at WCC to address many of the issues, electric buses would be more cost effective, the reasons why the routes had been cut was because they were not being utilised or cost effect. The Leader wanted the connectivity and for the residents to be able to lead active and independent lives and in order to do this the routes needed to be made more cost effective.
Question Submitted by Councillor S. Hughes
Councillor Hughes explained that her question was relevant to the petition heard earlier in the evening.
“The Government recently pledged £1.57 billion to help protect Britain’s arts, culture and heritage institutions from financial ruin as a result of Covid-19. How will you ensure venues that have been hit hard in Bromsgrove, such as the Artrix, can access these vital funds? “
The Portfolio Holder for Leisure and Community Services responded that the grants and loans distribution process for the allocation of the £1.57 billion provided by the Government to support the cultural sector had now been announced. The money was being distributed in three different ways.
1. Arts Council England will manage a £500million grant scheme for applications for support between £50,000 and £3million for activity taking place between 1st October 2020 and 31st March 2021,
2. A loan scheme for organisations who want to apply for a loan of no less than £3million, and
3. Individual artists and cultural organisations (as defined in the DCMS and Arts Council England (ACE) guidance) could access the Arts Council’s National Lottery Project Grants scheme. Further details about all of these funding opportunities could be found on the Arts Councils website.
From a local response, there was a robust collaborative approach to delivery of culture in the area that the Council had played a key part in facilitating, which Councillor Thomas was happy to provide to Councillor Hughes in writing outside of the meeting. All organisations who fell into the criteria described by DCMS and ACE were therefore entitled to apply for funding, would be minded to consider integrating the thinking that can be found in this research carried out by the Bromsgrove Arts and Culture Consortium. Arts Council England, the GBSLEP, the Elmley Foundation and other local funders had all supported the findings of this research. The Council would recommend that any organisation or individual that needed support from the Government’s support package should approach Development Services at the Council for support and assistance.
Councillor Hughes responded that she would write to Councillor Thomas in respect of the additional information, she asked if Councillor Thomas could respond in writing to a question in relation to cultural and heritage institutions, as someone who had had to postpone their wedding could she seek assurances that the Council was doing everything possible to support wedding venues and suppliers in the District through this difficult time. For example, there were some venues and places in the District which were also great cultural sites.
Councillor Thomas agreed to respond in writing to Councillor Hughes within the next two weeks.
Question Submitted by Councillor H. Rone-Clarke
Councillor Rone-Clarke took the opportunity to thank officers for facilitating the meeting and for the work to maintain the services throughout the pandemic. He also thanked the key workers and volunteers in his Ward, the District and beyond for their hard work.
“A government commissioned report has warned of the dangers of a second spike of Coronavirus this winter and suggested a number of mitigating actions to avoid further excess deaths...
Given that the council is currently working with its partners to develop a plan for future outbreaks, what preparations are the council taking in case of a second spike or, alternatively, a local lockdown?”
The Leader responded that Bereavement Services were working alongside other key partners within the County lead ‘Death Management Group’ to monitor infection rates, cause of and registration of deaths, mortuary capacity and usage, funeral director capacity and weekly numbers of funerals conducted. All of this detail was held and shared within the Group and would provide an early warning system which had already proven to be resilient within the first phase of the current pandemic.
The lead for responding to the pandemic and also any future local lockdowns sat with Worcestershire County Council (WCC). The Head of Regulatory Services was working closely with the Director of Public Health and her team. He and other members of WRS had been involved in the development of the local outbreak response plan and remained actively engaged with the response.
Following the initial lockdown, WRS re-organised its Community Environmental Health unit to create three teams focused on:
· Delivering resource into the Local Outbreak Management Team.
· Delivering the Government’s Business Closure provisions and, as controls relaxed, to support businesses to reopen safely and deal with non-compliance.
· Delivering the services’ normal response to health and safety at work, nuisance activities and reactive work on food hygiene, with proactive food visits being suspended nationally by the Food Standards Agency.
Resources were moved from within the WRS Technical Services team to support these activities. A number of officers from WRS were working as part of the Outbreak Response Team. They were operating under the direction of the Public Health consultant leading this team, responding to requests for advice from businesses and any outbreaks on business premises. The team were also identifying higher risk premises such as those where outbreaks had occurred elsewhere nationally, in order to help reduce the risk of future spikes. This work would be funded via monies received by the County Council from Central Government for outbreak control.
A local Engagement Board had been established by the County Council which had representation from all six district councils, and the Leader represented this Council. The Engagement Board would be at the heart of communications with local residents to help to persuade them to continue to follow the advice necessary to limit the risk of further, more widespread outbreaks. Should a local outbreak or lockdown be necessary, the Engagement Board would also be an essential part of ensuring the public understood what needed to be done and persuading people to follow the requirements necessary so that what had become the new normal could return as quickly as possible.
In the event of future outbreaks, the Government had given new powers to, in the case of Worcestershire, the County Council to instigate elements of a local lockdown with Government taking powers to deal with larger scale issues. The Head of Regulatory Services was working with the Director of Public Health and other County Council colleagues to understand how this might work. The outbreak management plan would continue to be exercised with specific scenarios to test readiness and ensure all of the key elements of response in particular settings were covered.
The re-organisation of the WRS team would remain in place as necessary. The economies of scale created by the 6 district councils agreeing to share resources in this way allowed the ability of the service to “flex” the resource being put into the response, balancing this with its normal activities on behalf of the 6 partners. The Head of Service was in communication with senior officers and the Chief Executives of all 6 councils to ensure that they were aware of any resourcing issues in order to respond if necessary.
The Leader confirmed that the multi-agency structures for incident management remained in place for information sharing and horizon scanning for all aspects of dealing with the pandemic. To that end following the outbreak on the Herefordshire farm, Worcestershire’s Tactical Co-ordinating Group held a multi-agency discussion exercise, regarding 2 scenarios requiring activation of the outbreak plan, and a lessons learned debrief had been undertaken.
Councillor Rone-Clarke responded, asked given the changes that had been seen across the Council’s operations due to the pandemic whether planning was being undertaken across this Council’s remit also, should a second spike arise.
The Leader explained that the Council needed to speak to its partners, in particular with the County Council, the Leader of the Engagement Board and the Director of Public Health, so she hoped that we did not get a second spike and people adhered to the guidance provided, but as and when required there were plans in place to be pro-active.