Agenda item

Gary Cowan asked the Chairman of Audit Committee the following question:



On the 4th of September, I asked the Chairman of the Health Overview & Scrutiny Committee the following question: Does the Council support the CCG policy on its provision of healthcare in which rural communities will certainly suffer as a result of their one size fits all policies? 


The answer was as follows; ‘As service provider the CCG decide how health provision is to be delivered and as partners Wokingham Borough Council aim to work with the CCG to facilitate their needs where this is possible.’


This would suggest that the Council sees working with the CCG as being more important than working to deliver residents actual needs. 


Then on the 18th September, I asked the Chairman of Overview and Scrutiny Management Committee the following question; ‘There is a general public perception that the Council’s planning department is not fit for purpose.  Most Councillors have experienced residents’ disquiet on decision-making, enforcement actions and the protection or lack of protection of trees especially those with TPO’s on them or where protective TPO’s are not considered when trees are at risk to development or have a community value.  This perception is also evident by articles in the press.


Whether there is any truth in this or not a review would be beneficial, as it would have two effects; one it would be to assure residents that the department functions correctly in a transparent manner or two it might identify areas where the service could be improved for the benefit of all….’


The reply I got suggested there was not a problem to which my supplementary was I would reply in more detail in writing. 


Yet the Audit Committee Annual Complaints Report states under Key Themes.


• As with recent years, the services which have received the highest volume of complaints are Housing and Development Management.

• The majority of these complaints are in relation to decisions reached on planning applications and planned/reactive housing repairs.

• Whilst the number of formal complaints received at Stage 1 has increased it is not by a number that should be a cause for concern with only 15 more cases being recorded in 2018/19, in comparison with 2017-’18.

• It should also be noted that whilst the number of Stage 1 cases have increased, the number of Stage 2 cases and LGSCO referrals have remained consistent which indicates that we are continuing to resolving cases at an early a stage as possible.


My question is in the light of the answers I got at the other O+S meetings and the comments above it would indicate that this level of complaints is considered acceptable by this Council.  Is this so?



I am a bit confused with your first part as you say that the Council sees working with the Clinical Commissioning Group as being more important than delivering residents’ actual needs.  The CCG are the ones that are responsible for delivering the residents’ needs in this respect and so we need to be working with them as a Council, to do this.  I am also a bit concerned because I thought that you were the Deputy Executive Member for Planning and Enforcement, is that still the case?


At this point Gary Cowan stated the following:

No, I resigned after Keith Baker said things about me in the press.


Answer continued:

I would say that I find the department absolutely fit for purpose.  It responds and it is good.  I think we can see on appeals that they do make sure that we are kept in line with what we should be doing. 


From Planning, we have a volume of complaints from around 25 per annum over the last few years.  Around a third are escalated to Stage 2 each time, and this is where a resident is not satisfied with our response, not something we do automatically.  To date the Council has had around 15 level 1 complaints, of which one has gone to the Ombudsman, and the Council, it was found in our favour.  I think these 15 complaints and 25 complaints per annum need to be seen in context.  The Council has thousands upon thousands of interactions with residents a day; such as today, about 12,000 sets of bins were emptied in Earley alone.  I think we have had nearly 2,500 planning applications in 2019 so far, so only having 15 complaints reaching level 1 is a comparatively small volume. 


I personally do not want to see any complaints against the Council, and I am committed to making sure we provide a high quality service for every resident.  I mean sometimes we get things wrong, but that is what the complaints process is there for; to ensure that peoples’ complaints are handled fairly, responsibly and can hopefully get to a situation that everyone agrees with and there is also the independent Ombudsman if that satisfaction cannot be reached at a local level. 


I would note that the complaints report is something that is on our agenda tonight so I cannot answer your final question as to whether it is an acceptable level or not until we as a committee have discussed this, but you are welcome to attend and listen to that part of the discussion.


Supplementary Question:

The comments with respect to the Health and Overview Committee are pretty straightforward, in terms of how the Council sees it work with the CCG.  The point I was making there is that it can be at the residents’ expense.  It is very clear where the partnership lies there.


The Chairman of Overview and Scrutiny asked if the Planning department was fit for purpose at the last meeting of that, and the answer I got there was a resounding yes.  Yet in your Audit Committee report here, there are issues where elements within the Council were failing.  The point I am really trying to make is that it is never good enough if there are any complaints in any department.  Residents expect the overview and scrutiny health committee to work for them and not just for the CCG.  The Audit Committee will discuss this.  My question therefore really is, and you have half answered; health and management overview scrutiny and even this Audit Committee, are they all fit for purpose as they are working now, because there are quite a few complaints listed in your report, and the comments seem to be that it is ok.


Supplementary Answer:

I think I will refer to the context.  We have had nearly 2,500 planning applications so far this year, of which there have been 15 complaints reaching Stage 1.  2,500 applications, many of them attract hundreds of comments, particularly some of the most recent, like the quarry one.  I will say that in terms of it, we do have complaints and I agree that any complaint must be taken seriously and I want to move to a target of zero, but as I say, we have hundreds of thousands of interactions with residents each year. 


My rubbish is picked up every single week.  There are 52 things that could go wrong there, across Earley, which is 11,000 houses.  That is half a million.  Let us be honest that is almost a million potential interactions just on our collection of waste, a year alone, excluding what we do around our fantastic schools, our adult social care, how we do sports, planning, and everything else.  I fully agree; I want us to move to zero complaints.  I want everything to be handled there but we are in a situation of that is a comparatively small number of those interactions.  I think it is ISO 9000, which is the international compliant standard which is that good organisations have a success rate of 99.998%.  If we are having 100 complaints over many millions of interactions, I do not know the statistics off there, but I agree we should be working towards nothing.  That is why we bring the complaints here, and that is why we as councillors are able to see what is going on and understand precisely where the complaints are; are there any particular departments?  We can hold the officers to account on behalf of residents.  In an ideal world, yes, this report would have a single page, which would have a zero on it, and I would love to be there, but I cannot see us getting there ever, if I am honest.