To receive any statements by the Leader of the Council, Executive Members and Deputy Executive Members.
In accordance with Procedure Rule 4.2.23 the total time allocated to this item shall not exceed 20 minutes, and no Member shall speak for more than 5 minutes.
Keith Baker, Leader of the Council
As this is the last full Council meeting of the current year I thought I would concentrate on the key events during my year of leadership.
This time last year the whole issue of Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) was explosively exposed in nearby Oxfordshire. When this happened we all posed the same question ‘Could it happen here?’ After all, we are all corporate parents. As soon as the story broke I commissioned a review focusing on how well WBC were responding to the emerging concerns about CSE prevention. This was led by Bernie McNally, a well-respected independent practitioner in this area. The report was published in November as part of the Children’s Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee agenda.
When I took on the leadership role of this Council one of my priorities was and continues to be the structural aspects of our companies. Over the last few years I have sponsored significant changes in many areas. The cornerstone of these changes has been formalising the governance structure so that everyone knows exactly how the decision making process works. This governance operational protocol is a living document and is continually evolving as events unfold. I have pushed for greater transparency with Board Chairmen now having their own slot on these agendas so they can update all Councillors on developments. Having a formal process is a great improvement but success will depend in part on who our Non-Executive Directors are. My strategy has been to attempt to match Councillors’ experience with the requirement of the Non-Executive Director role. This has meant a healthy degree of churn as this process was completed. We are practically there with the current appointments. The most recent change is around remuneration of our Non-Executive Directors. In the past the Leader decided, albeit in isolation, what that should be. I have always been uncomfortable with this so I asked the Independent Remuneration Panel if they could take on this role. I am pleased to say that they agreed with my suggestion and I look forward to their first full report. However, to assist this process in the future, some form of performance evaluation needed to be in place. Following my request a process was developed and all Non-Executive Directors are currently going through their first evaluation.
The other big piece of work that I have overseen is the budget. In October we thought we had a good grounding of what the Government settlement was likely to be. I have long felt that we could do a lot more to engage residents in explaining the financial position that this Council is in. With this in mind we embarked on a series of public engagement meetings across the Borough. These five meetings were the first time we had carried out such activity and we intend to repeat this next year, learning from the first experience.
We all know that this has been financially the most difficult year probably in living memory. Remember we are the lowest funded authority in the land. Over the Christmas period and beyond, I worked closely with John Redwood, our MP, other Berkshire Leaders, the LGA Conservative Group Leader and even managed to fit in a meeting with a Minister. Our collective lobbying succeeded with two years of transitional funding to help plan our finances through 2019 and 2020.
Throughout this last year I have also attended many meetings, ranging from Board meetings of our companies through to SDL Community Forums. I strongly believe that good leadership is where you do get out the office to see what is happening in the Borough. It has been invaluable to fully understand where things are going well and more importantly where they are not. This helps me shape the sorts of improvements that I believe are required. It also allows me to step in when residents have a particular issue which they believe is not actually being dealt with to their satisfaction.
Finally, I know several of you are up for re-election or are retiring in May. For those who are retiring, can I say on behalf of the Council, many thanks for all your efforts and your contributions to make this Council a great one. For those seeking re-election, can I wish you good luck and maybe see you at the Annual Council.
Pauline Jorgensen, Executive Member for Resident Services
At the last Full Council I said we were working to reduce costs and increase accessibility and improve the efficiency of our support services, so I would like to give you an update. As part of our drive to improve officer understanding of residents’ priorities we held another successful customer service event in Wokingham Market Place. At this event officers talked to residents about their experience of the Council and answered their questions. We also took the opportunity to capture details of any issues they had and passed them back to the service departments for resolution. Items of particular focus for residents this time were improving recycling opportunities and issues with street cleaning and drainage. As we did last year we will hold further sessions in other towns in the Borough and really look forward to talking directly to our residents.
I mentioned last time also that our new customer accounts service had launched which enabled people to report issues and file requests online and to track issue resolutions. To date 2,800 people have registered on the new portal and we have automated an astonishing 7,900 processes using the new self-service forms. I would like to really encourage everybody in the Borough to create an online account. It really makes things a lot easier and a lot more efficient and you can actually see what is going on with your request.
Garden waste renewals are the latest edition to the self-service forms. So far 60% of customers have renewed and 70% of them have done so online, saving manual intervention. Highways Services will be the next area to be integrated into the portal.
Our IT service has successfully migrated to Northgate with the journey to Microsoft Cloud nearing completion. That saves £500,000 of IT costs in 2016/17 and in total since 2014 our IT costs have reduced by 25% despite increased automation. Quite an achievement for our IT team.
Finally turning to libraries; a couple of updates. We have found a new home for the Arborfield library at the Royal British Legion. We have organised a Library Festival for April which I am looking forward to, with a range of Arts and Crafts for a celebration of Shakespeare’s 400th birthday. We are about to introduce our first 3D printing service in Wokingham Library and we are just about to update our Library Management System which will allow people more modern interfaces with the library and also introduce I Phone and Android apps allowing renewal and reservation of books online. So a couple of interesting technological improvements in libraries and more news to come.
Angus Ross, Executive Member for Environment:
I have a number of good news items for Council this evening. First our successful tendering for the grounds maintenance contract will come into reality on 1st April when ISS start their ten year contract. The cost to us is reduced and the flexibility of the grass cutting regime to cut when needed and to an appropriate height will be of great benefit to everyone and what our residents said they wanted when we consulted.
We had a very successful litter pick weekend across the Borough last weekend. I do not have the final numbers of people who took part and the amount they lifted but it was the best one yet. I do wish we could get our residents, especially drivers, not to throw their litter out, but to take it home and of course recycle it if possible. I think I had the best find. I found a Rolls Royce wheel trim in a ditch in Wokingham Without. Thank you to all those who turned out and please colleagues promote residents to sign up to Adopt a Street to keep areas litter free all year.
Chalfont Park old tennis courts in Lower Earley are now resurfaced, relit and serving well for ladies netball and Kicks football. They had fallen into disrepair and Section 106 money, not council tax payers’ money, enabled this.
We have completed the works to repair the roof of St Crispin’s Leisure Centre in Wokingham which had sprung some elusive leaks. Also we have with 1Life, opened a new entrance area to the Carnival Pool, including a gym exercise area and better facilities for people as they arrive.
If I could stray quickly into Royal Berkshire Fire territory, we have seen a continued benefit to residents in and around Wokingham town, with crews being on call for medical emergencies as well as fire. This is at times when the Ambulance Service does not have the resource for emergencies where the first responder can make a difference and I note that the Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee were briefed by South Central Ambulance Service on this. Wokingham Fire Station is the first full time station to provide this service in Berkshire. We all hope that the trial will continue its success and be the first of many to help save lives. The ability to do this, after appreciating that over the last ten or so years the number of fire call outs has halved, the fire crews have been suitably trained for this new additional role. Next month will see the first anniversary since the new joint fire control for Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire went live in the Berkshire Headquarters in Calcot. New equipment and bringing three units into one is both improving service and resilience as well as saving significant sums of public money.
Charlotte Haitham Taylor, Executive Member for Children’s Services:
This week as you mentioned before Mr Mayor, we were delighted to welcome His Royal Highness the Earl of Wessex to our Borough to showcase our Duke of Edinburgh programme that this Council successfully supports on behalf of our schools and also our youth service. His Royal Highness was very generous with his time meeting with lots of our students and young people who are taking part in this scheme. He also talked to many of our dedicated volunteers who give up their time so generously to support not only this but other youth work throughout our community.
It has been a busy couple of weeks in the world of education, with the Secretary of State, the Right Honourable Nicky Morgan MP announcing her White Paper on 17 March ‘Education Excellence Everywhere.’ Next week the Executive will be considering a policy paper on how this Council can support our local authority schools to become academies over the next four to five years. Currently just nine of our sixty five local authority schools are academies. We are already talking to our Headteachers, our Chairs of Governors, the Diocese and the School Commissioner and we will need both the support of our schools and our families to take us through this transitional period so we can ensure this policy delivers the very best outcomes.
At the same time as these changes there is also a consultation running on the Schools Funding Formula, as if one thing was not enough. Just in case you have forgotten, Wokingham’s pupils are the worst funded in the whole of the country, something which has been mentioned many times here before in this Chamber and is something that I and Conservative colleagues have been campaigning for change in central Government. The consultation runs until 17 April and whilst the Council will be sending in a formal response, other Members and in particular Members who sit on Governing bodies may wish to send their separate responses as well to central Government.
Yesterday was a momentous day in our journey into our new school, the Bohunt Secondary School in the South. A small group of parents and future students, who will be starting there this September, and the Headteacher and also some Members, toured the new school. The building works are progressing at a pace and we were able to walk down the corridors, look into what will be the classrooms, go up the stairs and even stand on the roof. It was pure delight and joy etched on to the faces of all of our students who were on the tour, apart from perhaps one small nervous face on the tour of the rooftop. A very positive day.
Philip Mirfin, Executive Member for Regeneration and Communities:
I would like to cover two areas of my portfolio this evening, first of all regeneration. The Planning Committee meeting to decide on the outcome of the planning application for the development of Elms Field will be on March 30th. The nine week consultation returned circa 240 responses from individual members of the public as well as a 1300 plus petition. I am pleased to confirm that no major issues have arisen out of the comments submitted within the public consultation. Interest from potential pre lets is high though subject to planning approval. The Highways Stopping Up Order for Peach Place and the CPO process are still ongoing. The public workshop that we held on 27 January received good feedback around the approach to materials and shop fronts. The Traffic Regulation Order consultation commenced on 28 January in relation to moving the disabled parking spaces and drop off from Rose Street car park on to Rose Street and in front of the Bradbury Centre.
Moving on to the Carnival Pool redevelopment, the decision by South West Trains to close Wokingham Station car park has led to a review of the programme which will allow the Carnival Pool car park to remain open now until 5 June. This does not delay the completion of the new multi storey car park which is still expected for March 2017 and it will help address parking and capacity issues within the wider town centre during this period.
The TRO consultation commenced to open up Wellington House car parks as alternative public short term pay and display car parking whilst the Carnival Pool is shut. Works are being carried out to open these to the public in early April. Preparatory surveys and site clearance are being carried out on the Carnival Pool site in the run up to June when the main construction work will begin on the car park.
Moving now on to community development. Norreys, there has been a process there of contributing to closing the gap. Our Community Development Worker has established a new programme of activities for children attending our Thursday After School Kids Club. Working in partnership with the Library Service colleagues this is now including a monthly visit to Wokingham Library. The children have already had their first visit and despite some initial reservations they thoroughly enjoyed themselves and have given some very positive feedback.
At Rainbow Park they recently had a community Burns Night lunch, if you can have such a thing. The Centre for the Community Action Group volunteers with the support of their Community Development Worker, pulled out all the stops for this and it was themed over a 50s lunch on 30 January.
At Shinfield Rise, the partnership working to support the children and young people, their regular Monday youth group, is now attracting twelve to thirteen children regularly and the session is a collaborative project supported by our Community Development Worker, a WBC Community Warden and a Youth Worker funded by Shinfield Parish Council. Following an approach by our Community Worker, Shinfield Parish Council have agreed to extend the Youth Worker’s hours, enabling the sessions to increase from fortnightly to weekly and the numbers have risen as a result.
In Woodley the revitalised Community Association, our Community Development Workers have been working with existing members of the South East Woodley Community Association to re-establish themselves and to attract more members. The first meeting was positive with new members attending and a new constitution is now being drafted and should be agreed at the AGM in April.
Lastly, Gorse Ride, which is inter-community learning. Seven learners attended the first crochet course session recently, attracting a new member of the community to the house. Bracknell and Wokingham College who deliver these courses aim to embed numeracy and literacy skills in all topics to support learners in enhancing their basics.
Julian McGhee-Sumner, Executive Member for Health and Wellbeing:
As the Leader mentioned earlier this evening the Health and Wellbeing Board was peer reviewed along with the Health and Wellbeing Boards from Reading and West Berkshire, at the beginning of March. This was the first time the Local Government Association had arranged to peer review three local authorities on the same visit. The purpose of the Peer Review which was led by Chief Executives and senior officers from other local authorities, as well as lead Members who chair Health and Wellbeing Boards in their own areas, was to look to benchmark us against our peers in order that we can become more effective in the role that we play. Although we will not get the written report for another few weeks, the initial feedback we believe did not show up anything that we were not aware of such as not having a dedicated officer resource and how we can better work with our neighbouring authorities, but we do look forward to the final report.
Turning now to the Department of Health. Members will recall that we instigated a Judicial Review along with West Berkshire against the Department of Health following their decision not to honour a commitment to provide additional funding for the extra cases we will be expected to deal with following the Government’s decision for us to move from ‘Critical’ to ‘Substantial.’ Following discussions with the Department of Health which started over a year ago we withdrew the Judicial Review in anticipation of reaching an agreement with the Department of Health over the level of additional funding required to discharge fully our commitments. Although the progress has been slow, Andy Couldrick, Stuart Rowbotham and I met with the Minister, Alistair Burt, along with our colleagues from West Berkshire, yesterday and we have been promised a decision within the next few weeks. I think the words the Minister used were ‘speedy’ and I am not quite sure what the definition in Government of ‘speedy’ is. So hopefully we will get the additional funding that we need but I will of course keep Members updated.
Malcolm Richards on behalf of John Kaiser, Executive Member for Highways and Planning:
A subject which is of major concern to residents is planning enforcement and as such the Council is committed to protecting the quality of the environment through ensuring that new development is of the highest quality and the things which allow Wokingham to continue to be one of the best places to live and work in the country are retained and protected. To meet this objective the Council recognises the importance of planning enforcement and is committed to providing an effective and efficient service. While it is encouraged if issues are resolved informally where possible (Government guidelines) through negotiation, this cannot always be achieved and the Council will monitor development and investigate all reported breaches, which amount to some 700 reported cases in Wokingham every year, of which over 50% are not actual breaches. When the reported breaches give rise to planning harm the Council will look to enforce using all the legal powers at its disposal, including prosecutions by the Courts, at the same time looking to recover the costs incurred in pursuing such cases. To ensure that resources are used in the most effective way enforcement has to be prioritised to focus on breaches that result in the greatest harm.
The Council is committed to ensuring the quality of developments in the Borough is of the highest quality and is authorised and as such recognising the importance of planning enforcement to ensure that new development is carried out to a high standard. All alleged breaches of planning control are investigated by the Council, except anonymous complaints, unless the harm resulting is significant. All reports are treated in strictest confidence and where possible the Council will look for voluntary compliance through the removal of the breach. At the same time updates will be provided to interested parties, although due to the time it takes to resolve some issues it may appear nothing is happening for some time as you have to follow the guidelines and the procedure as laid down by Government guidance and legislation, which means you must give reason at the time for offenders to comply.
The Council also has other powers of enforcement in relation to other legislation such as Highways, Environmental Health, listed buildings and trees. We recognise the importance of proactively monitoring development that goes within the Borough, however the Council issues approximately 3,000 planning permissions every year and these range from small scale extensions to major housing and commercial development. As such the Council works closely with Town and Parish Councils to be its eyes and ears on the ground.