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
Councillor Keith Baker, Leader of the Council
Prior to his statement, the Leader thanked Prue Bray for her contribution as Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group and wished her all the best.
I first need to inform Council that the item relating to “Proposed Reduction to Speed Limits on sections of B3349 Barkham Road, Bearwood Road and Sheerlands Road to Support Access and Walked Route to New Bohunt School, Arborfield” was taken as an urgent Executive decision on 1 September and as such was not subject to call in. This was undertaken in accordance with the Constitution and with agreement of the Mayor. The item was deemed urgent because Bohunt School was due to open on 5 September and any delay in implementing the speed limits could risk the safety of school children walking to the new School.
I also want to announce that due to work pressures Councillor Chris Smith has had to step down from his role as Deputy Executive Member for Children Services. I thank him for his all but brief efforts and wish him well for the future. I am very pleased to announce that Councillor Richard Dolinski has agreed to take on this role. Councillor Dolinski is a former Deputy Head, has a lot to offer and is already making an impact.
But I now want to use the rest of my speech to discuss a different but very important topic; the budget for 2017/18 and beyond. This year a lot of attention is being paid to putting together a more detailed 3 year budget to align with the Government’s offer of a 4 year settlement. As with everything the devil is in the detail. That detail masks a highly damaging reduction in grant in 2019/20, in that one year alone, of £7.1million, which is probably the largest drop this Council has ever seen, all in the year when councils are meant to be retaining, in full, their business rates. We have already started the work needed to address that issue but this year we need to find savings of over £4million which is slightly higher than the current year. So how are we going to do it? I expect Councillor Pollock will spend time in his speech providing more detail on this, but part of our solution is in my portfolio, which is something we are calling the 21st Century Council. For those who are interested in more detail, can I refer them to the Executive agenda for later this month where the business case can be found. This is a 2 year programme and will result in a dramatic change in how this Council carries out its affairs. This alone will provide just over £2million of savings for this coming year, which will be a major contribution to that £4million savings target. I will be bringing updates back to Council as the work progresses, but tonight I want to speak to you about the principles underpinning these changes.
We all acknowledge, or I hope we do, that we simply cannot carry on as things are. The challenges to our finances are set to continue for years to come, and it is essential that we remodel this Council and its responsibilities to make it suitable for the needs of our times. As such, we have carried out a fundamental review of how the Authority is structured and the services it provides. This has allowed us to completely rebuild the Council, from the foundations of what we want it to be, all the way up to how our Officers will do it. At the heart of the technical information are two core principles: responsible government and responsive government.
A responsible Council carries out our statutory services, lean but effective in delivering the essentials for residents. At the same time, it means recognising that the authority has to adapt to meet the needs of its residents. That is where the second principle comes in. With the foundations of our statutory services, as a responsive Council we must keep open a dialogue with our residents, shaping all of our services and deciding which non-statutory functions we want to fully fund. We need to introduce processes to ensure the greatest possible level of feedback from our residents on the effectiveness and the desirability of our policies and programmes. We need objective assessments of what services will best meet the needs of the residents at this time, and how these services will do this. And we need to understand where a service would be more effectively delivered or funded in a different way – through our companies for example or a third party. It is a key Conservative idea that from time to time we review our institutions, identify what works, and change what does not. Our 21st Century Council proposals, as you will see over the coming months, are radical yet stay true to the spirit of this evolutionary reform.
Councillor Anthony Pollock, Executive Member for Economic Development and Finance
We are currently almost halfway between the budget setting Council meetings of 2016 and 2017 and so it is a good time to reflect on the past year. The Financial Accounts are nearly complete and the revenue budget overspend has not changed since it was reported to the Executive earlier in the municipal year. It remains at a small overspend of £454,000 or 0.35% of the net revenue budget of £128 million. The main reasons for the overspend is the rise in homelessness and the need to place children in expensive, specialist residential care. Both these categories are demand led which means if people come to us and meet the qualifying requirements then we are required to spend the money to meet their needs. We are not a spendthrift authority and therefore we only spend tax payers’ money where necessary.
The Capital Programme was £111million and was underspent by £1,871 and I will not give you the percentage because it is so infinitesimal. There was a carry forward of £62,000 to complete some projects in the current financial year, which were started the last one.
The Council continues to top the council tax collection league tables, collecting 99.5% against our neighbouring authorities who collected between 96.5% and 98.9%. To put this in context, the additional 3% between 96.5% and 99.5% equates to nearly £4million. We collected 99.1% of our Business Rates which regrettably puts us 50th out of 326 local authorities. I would like to be higher up but never mind. Our neighbours collected less than we did; 97.1% to 98.9%, which again putting it in context, something around 2% is about £1million extra that we collect because of our good team. The Finance Team therefore collected about an extra £5million per annum when compared to the worst collection rates of our neighbouring Berkshire authorities, a significant sum when put in context of the Budget.
During the year we finalised the collection of 98.4% of the £5million we had with Icelandic banks back in 2008. At the time I thought we would collect 95% of the amount outstanding so I am especially pleased to have exceeded that target.
Last time we undertook for the first time an exercise in budget engagement with the public and we plan for a repeat of the exercise this year between 17 and 31 October. I would ask you to publicise these events so that we can increase the number of residents attending.
As our Leader has said in his speech, the details of next year’s budget are currently being worked up. We have had a tight financial settlement, a 4 year settlement, which is on offer as a quasi-guarantee from the Government, which means they will tell us they guarantee it but they might change their mind if the numbers do not add up for them in future. We will be taking a paper to Executive next week in order to do our best to ensure that they do not take money away from us unnecessarily. The challenges looking ahead are far harder than we normally face since we have already saved £31million since 2010. As Keith has talked about the 21st Century Council Project, which is our response to this increased challenge. I would remind Members that we face having our Rate Support Grant eliminated completely and the prospect in 2019/20 of a £7million negative Rate Support Grant, highly unfair but that is the prospect. Fortunately we were successful in lobbying this year for transitory relief over the next 2 years and for the removal of the negative Rate Support Grant in 2019. I will continue to lobby for the remaining proposed negative Rate Support Grant for 2019/20 to be removed and for retention of more than £6million of the £60million in business rates which we are supposed to be retaining more of our business rates, but we seem to end up retaining less. However, we will rise to the challenge and continue to successfully balance the books, notwithstanding the challenges we face.
Councillor Charlotte Haitham Taylor, Executive Member for Children’s Services
I want to take this minute to congratulate our pupils for all their endeavours, their dedicated teaching and support staff, governors, parents and carers for supporting them to achieve their potential and move smoothly on to the next steps, whether it be A Levels, college, apprenticeships or university and other pathways. Our GCSE students yet again bucked the national trend of falling passes and again achieved higher grades than last summer’s cohort. This is now the third year in a row that our GCSE students have improved their GCSE passes. This year for students getting five or more A* to C grades including English and Maths, the results rose by over 2.8%, taking the percentage to 70.6%. Over the next two years we can all look forward to getting our heads around a new set of measures called Progress 8 which will replace the GCSE gradings.
Our A level students have a lot to celebrate too with their results when they came out in August. They also achieved results which were above the national average and all of our Borough schools achieved at least 98% of the pass rate and both Waingels College in Woodley and The Piggott in Wargrave, both achieved a 100% pass rate.
Over the summer break the Council also received findings of inspections of our Youth Offending Service. I will quote just a couple of paragraphs of this report to give you a flavour of the Inspector’s conclusions:
“Wokingham Youth Offending Service were undertaking highly effective work with children and young people. Case managers were skilled, experienced and motivated to support children and young people to achieve positive outcomes.”
Later on the report goes on, “the level of compliance by children and young people was excellent. We saw creative work being carried out in all cases which promoted engagement. All children and young people who had complied fully with their orders and there were no reoffending or instances of returning orders to court for non-compliance.” It is an excellent report reflecting the real skills, strength and leaderships in this team and the outcomes it is producing. I would like to thank and praise those working in this service who are affecting real change in the lives of our young people.
Lastly, I was excited on Friday to be attending the celebration to unveil the plaque, formally marking the start of Bohunt Secondary School, the first new secondary school that this Authority has built for more than 50 years. This is a remarkable and significant achievement that everyone can be rightly proud of, and I know that the new students who are experiencing their very first days in this innovative school are excited and learning lots of new things. The learning opportunities on offer there are superb and I wanted to sign up to all of the after school clubs, building robots and learning new languages, and I am sure that everyone else there was extremely excited as well.
Councillor Angus Ross, Executive Member for Environment
During the summer there was a lot of activity organised through our splendid Sports Development Team for children's activities with emphasis on reaching those most in need of support.
Another exciting way youngsters in and around Finchampstead could have fun and exercise was at the new Multi-Use Games Area (MUGA) which opened at the start of the summer holidays. This has proved extremely popular and is an exemplar of the new open multi activity MUGAs which I hope we can develop to install later around our SDLs. Thanks to the Deputy Mayor, Rob Stanton we had a good official opening on 25 August.
During that period we conducted a comprehensive consultation in Woodley on options for the future of Bulmershe Leisure Centre. We plan to bring forward our proposals soon so we can then develop the specification and work with users and the other site occupants, including Bulmershe and Addington Schools and Woodley Town Council as well as local residents, as not only will there need to be careful planning on site but also the need to try to provide the best alternative access to facilities during any works.
Further, during the summer we hosted the first Marvellous Festival in Dinton Pastures on the weekend after our last Council meeting. This was a great success on all counts, including the weather. Plans for future festivals are underway and we will be consulting with the residents close to Dinton to get feedback from them and also propose improvements for any future similar events. In future years we should gain significant financial surpluses.
July saw the contract for our grass cutting and maintenance of our open spaces settle down to its agreed routine - cutting where necessary rather than every 'x' weeks. The many discussions we had with residents has ensured a more comprehensive understanding of the local needs of each location, whilst accepting we will never please everyone, whatever regime is put in place. Balancing the needs of children's informal play areas, dog walkers and increased opportunities for biodiversity will always challenge us but I believe we have a much better understanding of this now.
To ensure we have robust effective and maintained sustainable drainage schemes in new housing developments, we have been consulting on our new strategy. The consultation finished last week and we will study the responses and plan to come forward with an even better strategy for adoption later this year. This work is at the forefront of strategies across the country and will better inform developers in our Borough before even coming to the Council for pre-application discussions and will also give our Planning Officers informed reference to the drainage requirements for each site.
My Deputy, Parry Batth, has been working on various energy and climate change opportunities which he will bring to the Council at our next meeting.
Councillor Malcolm Richards, Executive Member for Highways and Transport
In 2015, we decided that Wokingham Borough Council would seek to adopt Civil Parking Enforcement, or CPE, as an alternative to the Police having responsibility for our parking matters. That decision was progressed and approved by the Executive, and several actions have taken place along the way to achieve the necessary status for CPE submission to the Secretary of State for Transport. I am now pleased to say that next week I will be presenting our formal CPE application to the Executive for approval to submit that CPE application to the Secretary of State.
Secondly, I would also like to inform Council that the Wokingham Railway Station and Station Link Road Redevelopment has won the Urbanisation Award from the Institute of Civil Engineers and they received their award recently at the Institution Civil South East England Award Ceremony. I would like to put on record our congratulations to the team from the Highways Department for that success.
Councillor Pauline Jorgensen, Executive Member for Resident Services
Just a couple of announcements. We have in the last few days introduced an Apple and Android app. It allows residents to report problems on their mobile devices. I would be very pleased if everyone would download it to their mobile devices and use it. We have had 8,277 households so far sign up for mobile accounts. We are also getting a lot of success in Web Chat.
Second thing that I wanted to mention is that libraries continue to hit the headlines, in a positive way. On Thursday it was announced that the Council’s Children’s Librarian, Elizabeth McDonald has been named as the ‘Librarian of the Year’ by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in recognition of her work with children, young people and their families. She also got an award from the Mayor so I would like to congratulate her very much on that award; she has done brilliantly.
We also hosted the first visit by Rob Wilson, in his role as Minister for Libraries, which was very good and we are continuing to discuss with this department innovations that they can suggest to help develop our libraries further.
We are working with West Berkshire Council and Bracknell Forrest Council on a new Public Protection Shared Service Agreement which we hope will save between £50-70K a year to Wokingham Borough Council on top of the £150k we already save on the current scheme.
Finally, I would like to join Keith in thanking Prue for all her efforts as Leader. Whilst we do not always agree on everything, I do respect your passion and commitment and wish you all the best in the future.