A period of up to one hour is allocated to consider the motions on notice. This may only be extended with the agreement of the Council.
The Chairman explained that three Motions on Notice had been received for consideration at the meeting. However, prior to the meeting, Councillor H. Rone-Clarke had confirmed that he was withdrawing his Motion. Therefore, only two Motions were due to be debated at the meeting.
Parkside Running Costs
Council considered the following Motion on Notice that was submitted by Councillor P. McDonald:
"Forking out £240,000 running costs for Parkside that rattles plus £138,000 to Redditch Council, to many is seen as financial incompetence and a cavalier approach to spending the hard-earned money of its residents at a time of a cost-of-living crisis.
We therefore call upon the Council to form a cross-party task group to carry out a full investigation into financial arrangements with Redditch Council: which it would seem to have left Bromsgrove Council with running costs of a £240,000; for what is a mainly an unused building while at the same time paying out £138,000 for use of Redditch Council's premises."
The Motion was proposed by Councillor McDonald and seconded by Councillor Rone-Clarke.
In proposing the Motion, Councillor McDonald raised concerns that Parkside cost the Council £240,000 per annum to maintain, particularly at a time when many staff were working from home. Concerns were raised that the Council was providing a financial contribution to Redditch Borough Council to cover the costs of accommodating staff working in shared services and based at Redditch Town Hall when space remained available to accommodate staff at Parkside. Councillor McDonald also raised concerns about the Council meeting these costs at a time of a cost of living crisis, when many residents would benefit from financial assistance and other support. Residents paid Council Tax and fees for many Council services and it was important to ensure that there was transparency in respect of how this funding was spent and that value for money (vfm) was achieved. Councillor McDonald expressed concerns about the implications of shared service arrangements for the potential for staff to meet the needs of Bromsgrove residents and he suggested that there was the possibility that Redditch Borough would benefit from these arrangements at the expense of Bromsgrove District. A cross party working group could investigate this situation further and determine whether best value was being achieved for the Council.
In seconding the Motion, Councillor Rone-Clarke expressed concerns about the use of public funds on the maintenance of Parkside and in shared service arrangements with Redditch Borough Council. Members were advised that there was a need for due diligence and a cross party review would be able to ensure transparency of management of the Council’s finances. Councillor Rone-Clarke also suggested that this review would provide the public with reassurance about the work of the Council. Members were asked to note that the Motion was not calling for an end to shared services but, rather, for these arrangements to be reviewed.
In response to the Motion, the Portfolio Holder for Finance and Governance commented that he refuted claims that the Council was financially incompetent and had a cavalier attitude to spending residents’ monies. The Council took any spending seriously. In respect of financial competence, he commented that the shared services costs were included in the Council’s net budget position.
The Portfolio Holder for Finance and Governance then explained that he could not support the motion as it was considered unnecessary. All organisations, both public and private, had been affected by the global pandemic in ways that could never have been imagined. One of the many consequences was the way in which people worked had changed and the fact that office accommodation, with the requirement for people to be physically in attendance, had changed irrevocably. The Council was transitioning to an agile working policy for the workforce and a review of the authority’s accommodation had been ongoing to see to what extent it could be better used for the benefit of residents. In addition, there had been an increase in utility and operational costs of running buildings and there was a requirement for everyone to think very carefully about the pledges made by the Council on the environment.
In this context, the Portfolio Holder for Finance and Governance explained that action was already being taken by the Council. This included leasing arrangement with Seetec at Parkside, which had been a success. They had built links with partner organisations co-located at Parkside, such as the Job Centre Plus and the Council’s Housing and Benefit teams, which had resulted in a huge increase in the numbers of residents being supported back into the workplace or into training that would give them the skills they needed to move on. In addition, these arrangements also allowed the Council to drastically reduce the operating costs from the previous financial year, as detailed in the wording of the proposed Motion. Net costs were about £240,000, including £178,000 for Business Rates, £100,000 for utilities, £112,000 for maintenance costs and £138,000 towards Shared Services. Against these costs, there was income of £280,000 at present, but once Seetec income was taken into account, there would be £60,000 additional funds.
The Portfolio Holder for Finance and Governance explained that Officers had been collaborating with partners at Redditch to review the space that was being used for Bromsgrove District Council as well as a review of the Town Hall. Redditch Borough Council was working with public and VCS partner organisations to let space that would enable their building to become a public sector hub. Arrangements had progressed and the running costs for the Town Hall would decrease significantly, by up to 50 per cent, in the medium term, with a similar reduction following to shared services costs for Bromsgrove District Council. This represented a further saving of at least £70,000.
In conclusion, the Portfolio Holder for Finance and Governance explained that the net costs to Bromsgrove would therefore reduce in 2022/23 and future years both at Parkside and in the space occupied in Redditch by at least 50 per cent on current figures. Under these circumstances, he expressed the view that he did not believe a working party could achieve more than had been achieved to date. However, the Portfolio Holder for Finance and Governance offered to bring details of progress to the Finance and Budget Working Group for consideration on a six-month rota.
Members subsequently discussed the Motion in detail and in doing so referred to the need for heritage buildings in the District, including Parkside, to be maintained. It was noted that there were specific requirements for the maintenance of listed buildings and this needed to be taken into account when considering the costs involved in maintaining Parkside.
Reference was made to the potential for the review of the financial costs involved in maintaining Parkside and in relation to shared services to have been referred to the Overview and Scrutiny Board for consideration. Members commented that the Board had a legitimate role to play in reviewing the Council’s finances and could refer subjects for the consideration of the Finance and Budget Working Group or to a Task Group. In addition, Members commented that, given the significant sums involved, this subject would potentially be suitable for further scrutiny.
In accordance with Procedure Rule 18.3 a recorded vote was taken on this Motion and the voting was as follows:
Members voting FOR the Motion:
Councillors S. Baxter, S. Colella, S. Douglas, A. English, C. Hotham, R. Hunter, J. King, L. Mallett, P. McDonald, S. Robinson and H. Rone-Clarke (11).
Members voting AGAINST the Motion:
Councillors A. Beaumont, R. Deeming, G. Denaro, S. Hession, H. Jones, A. Kriss, K. May, M. Middleton, M. Sherrey, C. Spencer, P. Thomas, M. Thompson and S. Webb (13).
Members ABSTAINING in the vote on the Motion:
No Councillors (0).
On being put to the vote the Motion was therefore lost.
Council considered the following Motion on Notice that was submitted by Councillor S. Colella:
“This Council changes its grass verge grass cutting and mowing regime to allow wildflowers to remain in bloom during the height of the season when bees, butterflies and general small wildlife rely on the pollen from wildflowers to flourish.”
The Motion was proposed by Councillor Colella and seconded by Councillor C. Hotham.
In proposing the Motion, Councillor Colella explained that it was calling for the Council to agree a grass cutting policy for the District. There were benefits for local wildlife arising from leaving grass and wildflowers to grow on grass verges, as this helped to generate pollen for the bees and grass seed that could be consumed by birds. The Council had a moral responsibility to support the local environment. There were some residents who preferred for grass verges to be mown on a more regular basis and the Council’s grass cutting policy would need to make allowances for this. Adoption of the Motion would help to demonstrate that Bromsgrove District Council recognised the importance of local habitats and management of the environment. Some residents might need to be educated about the benefits of not regularly mowing grass verges and the Council would need to issue effective communications on this subject, including through social media.
In seconding the Motion, Councillor Hotham commented that the proposed policy would be a positive development for the Council. The authority could invest in new machinery to cut wildflowers and long grass after a longer period of time than usual had passed. Many residents welcomed the sight of wildflowers on the grass verges and this helped to make places more visually attractive.
During consideration of this Motion, Councillor R. Hunter proposed an amendment. The amended Motion was recorded in the following manner:
“This Council changes its grass verge grass cutting and mowing regime to allow wildflowers to remain in bloom during the height of the season when bees, butterflies and general small wildlife rely on the pollen from wildflowers to flourish. This will not be a one size fits all approach. Council will work with local residents and Councillors to find an approach that works for each community.”
Councillor Colella, as the proposer of the original Motion, confirmed that he was happy to adopt the amended wording.
In response to the proposed Motion, the Portfolio Holder for Environmental Services and Community Safety commented that grass verges were the responsibility of Worcestershire County Council and managed in relation to highway safety considerations. However, within speed restricted settlements, Bromsgrove District Council carried this out on behalf of the County Council in order to support a higher aesthetic standard. The Place Team had identified a number of areas of highway verges and public open spaces across the District in the last few years for naturalising so as to support local habitat as well as biodiversity, and this had been carried out without impacting on highway safety. Unfortunately, this could not be done on all grass areas, and where it had been deemed that this could be done safely, there had been mixed responses from the public who lived by these areas. Many residents were supportive of the idea in principle, but some referenced the rural nature of the District and the proximity of open countryside to most residential areas that could support wildlife, and some wanted a more aesthetic maintenance of grass areas where they lived.
The Portfolio Holder for Environmental Services and Community Safety explained that the Council aimed to continue identifying areas that could be naturalised to support the growth of common flowers such as buttercups, yarrow, dandelion, flatweed and cow parsley to support local wildlife and give them improved habitat to live and move within as green corridors. However, further discussions were needed with residents to help educate people on the importance of this and balance public expectations against the environmental benefit. The majority of the Council’s grass areas did not have any aesthetic wildflower displays currently, and this would require more proactive establishment to develop and maintain colourful wildflower areas. The Council had created a couple of small areas like this but would require additional resources and a change in equipment to facilitate this on a larger scale, which was not currently accounted for in the authority’s financial planning. In addition, a number of the Council’s parks had had a range of measures implemented in recent years to support biodiversity across the site, with wildflower planting, habitat management and naturalisation work. These initiatives had been supported through specific habitat management plans for Sanders Park and Lickey End Recreation Ground, which were being incorporated into new management plans that would also incorporate St Chad’s Park and King George V Play Fields as part of the development of the new Leisure and Culture Strategy.
The Motion was discussed by Members in detail and during the discussions, Members commented on the need for local communities to be engaged in consideration of whether to adopt this approach to the management of particular grass verges and open spaces. Examples were provided of attempts being made in the past to rewild some green spaces in wards where there were few other open spaces that could be used for recreation and in these instances, Members suggested that it would be more appropriate for the grass to be cut regularly.
Concerns were raised that, whilst the proposed approach might benefit the local environment, there could be significant financial implications which needed to be clarified. In this context, the suggestion was made that the subject of the Motion should be referred to the Finance and Budget Working Group for further consideration. A business case would subsequently need to be submitted to the Cabinet for further consideration. Members commented that the financial costs might not be significant, as it was likely that this approach would result in a reduction in the number of hours staff were required to work on maintaining grass verges However, it was also noted that, because the grass and wildflowers would have grown longer than usual, it could potentially be more difficult to cut and therefore the Council might need to invest in new equipment or take longer on the task, resulting in financial costs.
Reference was made to the beneficial impact that this approach to grass cutting could have on local wildlife and habitats. Concerns were raised about the decline in numbers of birds and animals in various species in recent years, particularly in relation to bee varieties and Members commented that this would have a detrimental impact on plant pollination unless action was taken. Climate change was resulting in changing and more extreme weather patterns and pollution was having a negative impact on the natural world. When grass verges were mown regularly this could result in plants being cut before seeds were ready, to the detriment of the local environment. Residents would still have an opportunity to request that their grass verges were cut regularly if this was felt to be necessary.
On being put to the vote the Motion was carried.
This Council changes its grass verge grass cutting and mowing regime to allow wildflowers to remain in bloom during the height of the season when bees, butterflies and general small wildlife rely on the pollen from wildflowers to flourish. This will not be a one size fits all approach. Council will work with local residents and Councillors to find an approach that works for each community.