To discuss priorities for the year ahead with Councillor Charlotte Haitham Taylor (Leader of the Council) and Councillor Chris Bowring (Executive Member for Highways and Transport.
The Committee considered a report, set out at Agenda pages 15 to 20, which continued the process of holding discussions with Executive Members. The aim of the discussions was to increase awareness of key policy and service issues over the year ahead and to identify areas where Overview and Scrutiny could provide effective challenge and support. Members had agreed the principle that Overview and Scrutiny would add more value if it was a proactive process rather than a reactive process.
Charlotte Haitham Taylor (Leader of the Council) and Chris Bowring (Executive Member for Highways and Transport) were in attendance to give an outline of key challenges and opportunities and to answer Member questions developed around key lines of enquiry. Pauline Jorgensen (Deputy Executive Member for Communications) was also in attendance to answer Member questions on communication issues.
Councillor Haitham Taylor addressed the Committee and provided answers relating to the relevant key lines of enquiry set out in the report. She began by welcoming the role of Overview and Scrutiny in holding the Executive to account and supported its bipartisan approach.
Key Line of Enquiry 1 – Remit
Councillor Haitham Taylor described her leadership style as consensual, seeking to support and empower the Executive and Deputy Executive Members. Members had been appointed to those roles based on their ability to deliver and to adapt to the changing local government environment. Her aim was to work with colleagues to enable the Council to deliver sustainable services for the benefit of the Borough’s residents.
Key Line of Enquiry 2 – Priorities
Councillor Haitham Taylor set out a list of priorities for the Council, viz:
· Local Plan Update
· Improving communications
· Engagement with the Government
· Engagement with the business community
· Supporting the more deprived parts of the Borough
· Building capacity in the Council-owned companies
· Making the Council more self-sufficient
· Highways investment to tackle congestion
· Working with partners, including Towns/Parishes and the voluntary sector
· Managing demand and risk relating to adult and children’s services.
Councillor Haitham Taylor felt that two of the most pressing issues were the Council’s plans to meet housing needs and the achievement of financial stability. Areas for new housing were being identified through the Local Plan Update with 263 potential sites identified. It was important to work closely with Members and community stakeholders to ensure that new housing was developed in sustainable locations.
In relation to finance, the Council was approaching a “cliff edge” as a result of reductions in Government grant and the proposed move to a negative grant position. It was important to develop a more commercial approach which delivered new sources of income and maximised the potential of the Council’s assets.
Councillor Haitham Taylor referred to the 21st Century Council programme which would support the priorities by making the Council more efficient and more effective at delivering the key services which residents needed.
Key Line of Enquiry 3 – Communication with Councillors
Councillor Jorgensen outlined her role in improving communication with Members and residents and gave examples of more effective use of social media.
Councillor Haitham Taylor recognised the important role of Members in keeping residents informed but did not necessarily agree that they were “by passed”. There were examples of good communication and poor communication. The aim was to learn from the examples where communication was effective. She suggested that the Committee may wish to review the sections of the Council’s Constitution relating to Member communications and make appropriate recommendations to the Constitution Review Working Group
Councillors Haitham Taylor and Jorgensen were happy to receive Member feedback on areas of poor communication. Councillor Baker gave an example relating to the recent changes to Member communication on the approved plans list.
Key Line of Enquiry 4 – Town Centre Regeneration
Councillor Haitham Taylor confirmed that it was still the Council’s aim to regenerate the other towns in the Borough once the Wokingham project was completed. It was accepted that costs relating to the Wokingham town centre regeneration had increased but there had also been an increase in the scope of the project. It was not accepted that the increase in costs had taken place without scrutiny. There was a Member group in place to oversee the project and to scrutinise the financial implications.
Key Line of Enquiry 5 – Budgeted Savings
Councillor Haitham Taylor confirmed that the Council was on track to achieve its savings target for 2017/18. In relation to 2018/19, a budget shortfall of £6m was being addressed and, to date, £5.8m savings had been identified. The 21st Century Council programme was on track to achieve its savings targets and, as mentioned earlier, it was anticipated that a more commercial approach would identify new revenue streams. The Council was also focussing hard on measures to manage demand relating to adult and children’s social care. Finally, the Council would continue to lobby the Government about the injustice of a move to negative grant funding.
Key Line of Enquiry 6 – Independent Remuneration Panel and the Executive
Councillor Haitham Taylor confirmed that the number of Executive Members had increased from eight to nine. However, the total of Executive and Deputy Executive Members remained at 15. The new Executive reflected a greater emphasis on strategic highways and planning, business links, commercialisation and communications. The benefits of stronger communications had been identified by the recent LGA Peer Review team.
Councillor Haitham Taylor noted that the Independent Remuneration Panel report would be considered by the Council in November. She felt that Non-Executive Director payments should be treated separately to Special Responsibility Allowances and had made representations to the Panel on that basis. She also noted that payments for Members on the Fire Authority were a matter for the Fire and Rescue Service.
Councillor Haitham Taylor agreed to provide the Committee with details on recent changes to Non-Executive Director payments for Members on Council-owned companies.
In the ensuing discussion Members of the Committee raised the following points and questions:
What ideas were being considered as part of the move to greater commercialisation? It was confirmed that a number of areas were being explored with staff such as greater income generation from the Council’s property portfolio.
Was uncertainty over the 21st Century Council programme resulting in the loss of key staff? It was confirmed that the 21st Century Council team were working closely with staff and the trade union to ensure that there was good communication and clarity about the change process.
In relation to the list of key priorities, how would success be measured? It was confirmed that a range of success measures would be used, including:
· Local Plan Update – ensuring that local communities are engaged in the process and effective lobbying of Government about housing numbers;
· Communications – residents having a greater understanding of Council services and how the Council makes a difference in local communities;
· 21st Century Council – delivering a more efficient organisation which is more business-like, self-sufficient and customer focused. Developing the 21st Century Councillor role with training on new IT systems, etc.;
· Working with partners – developing shared opportunities and managing shared risks across the Borough with the police, health services, Towns and Parishes and the voluntary sector.
Chris Bowring (Executive Member for Highways and Transport) addressed the Committee and provided answers relating to the relevant key lines of enquiry set out in the report. Pauline Jorgensen provided information and answered questions on communication issues.
Key Line of Enquiry 1 – Communications
Chris Bowring noted that effective communication was an important issue for Members and gave details of measures in hand to improve the flow of information. This included the development of a flow chart which set out a pro forma sequence of events and ensured that the right people were informed at the right time. In addition the Major Works programme was published each year and the Roadworks.org website provided up to date information on current and planned schemes.
Pauline Jorgensen gave details of ongoing work to improve the flow of information to Members, especially on ward issues. Members felt that the receipt of information in advance of residents was important for them to “manage” the message. Feedback was welcomed on the type of information which Members found useful, especially in relation to ward matters.
Members raised issues around roadworks which overran and sites where little work appeared to be happening. Chris Bowring confirmed that work was ongoing to make roadwork signs more informative and helpful to the public.
Members asked about the operation of the Highways for Members inbox. It was confirmed that the target for responses was five working days. However, Officers tried to provide a quicker response if possible. Councillor Jorgensen confirmed that the 21st Century Council programme would include a replacement for the Highways for Members inbox.
Members suggested that a cross-party group of Members be brought together to discuss ideas for improved communication and highlight the types of information which would be useful.
Key Line of Enquiry 2 – Policies
Chris Bowring confirmed that ongoing priorities related to road safety, tackling traffic congestion and developing partnerships with Town and Parish Councils. Ongoing policy work included:
· Review of subsidised transport across the Borough;
· Safe routes to Primary Schools, including consultation;
· Devolution to Towns and Parishes – e.g. Civil Parking Enforcement and separate car park charges e.g. Woodley;
· Parking Policy – report of the Member Working Party to be considered by Executive in April 2018;
In the ensuing discussion Members raised the following points and questions:
In relation to the ongoing regeneration works, what was the impact on car park income? It was confirmed that the performance for August 2017 was an improvement on August 2016.
What measures could be introduced to improve transport and parking for people with disabilities e.g. working with adult and children’s services to develop new policies?
Were proposals under consideration to reinstate school crossing patrol officers? It was confirmed that safety audits were being carried out at seven sites. Local Members were involved in the discussions and there would be consultation with local residents.
1) Councillors Haitham Taylor, Bowring and Jorgensen be thanked for attending the meeting and answering Member questions;
2) Progress on key issues and priorities identified during the discussions be reported to a future meeting of the Committee;
3) Councillors Bowring and Jorgensen consider the Member suggestions on improving Member communications and report back on any initiatives which are introduced.