Questions to the Portfolio Holder for Improvement & Innovation
The Leader and Portfolio Holder for Improvement and Innovation presented an update to the Committee highlighting five key areas, which he gave some key points on.
The Levelling up and regeneration bill, had been briefly covered by the Portfolio Holder for Development & Conservation, but another area of discussion was the creation of Unitary Authorities being created, despite the District Councils being unfavourable of the moves. There was a lot of work being undertaken with the District Councils Network.
The Environment bill had stalled and there were some concerns, that it would not necessarily provide better services for residents. Other areas also included the fair funding review, further planning reforms and the change of Government Ministers which put the Council in a state of flux and would also affect our residents.
Moving on to other areas within in his Portfolio, the White Oak Leisure Centre was reaching around 2500 users per day which was 2000 more than expected, and was very welcomed. There were ongoing issues with the cost of demolition and responsibility for these costs was currently under review. Meeting point was due for completion soon. It was slightly behind schedule but this was outside of the Council’s control. Planning permission for Bevan Place, White Oak Housing, and Stangrove would be going in shortly as well as a new application for Spitals Cross, following feedback received. It was being investigated for how to use the land East of the High Street in the best way going forward. Finally, it was hoped that refurbishment works on Edenbridge Leisure Centre would be coming forward in the future to bring it up to modern standards.
Moving to operational demand, staffing and systems the demand for services remained consistently around 20% higher than before Covid. Some of this demand was caused by staffing availability which was being seen across every sector. This resulted in sometimes having to go to advert 2 or 3 times before being able to recruit the best person to fill the post. A review of systems was also being looked at to help combat this and included looking at automatic renewals for garden waste permits. A report was also presented to the Improvement & Innovation Advisory Committee regarding cyber security and the Chief Officer for Customer & Resources had taken part in a training course with world leads in tackling cyber-crime.
The Portfolio Holder ended his presentation by advising the Committee that a resident’s survey had been carried out with much success and that following the peer challenge nine recommendations had been made with many underway.
In response to questions Members were advised that White Oak was a four stage programme, unfortunately general construction costs were going up but it was also hoped that they would go down. The housing scheme would take a slightly different approach and it was anticipated that there would be a way to reclaim some of the expenditure on asbestos removal.
In response to a question, Members were advised that the reorganisation of the office space ensured that Teams were seated within their wider departments and this would produce the best way of working. So far staff were supportive of the moves and the upgrade of the ‘Octagon’ working space, which had created additional meeting rooms and informal work space which was important with the move to hybrid workings. It was questioned how much had been spent on the upgrade to which the Leader explained the costs were very reasonable when looking at the much needed work and the benefit it brought to service delivery.
In response to questions around cost of power and electricity the Portfolio Holder advised that the Council could be affected by the increasing inflation costs as the revenue budget remained the same as it had been nearly 20 years ago. On 7 July 2022, the provisional outturn report had been presented to Members and although the final outturn for the year was not too bad, and it had been kept within a decent limit, it was important to look at the pressures behind it. These pressures affected the Direct Services Team with increased demand, vehicles, maintenance, fuel and it was something that was taxing officers and Members of the Cabinet. Although looking at the district as a whole, many would accept the district was in a generally fortunate position, but there were pockets of high deprivation. The council was constantly looking at new ways of creating revenue and investments, especially when, despite the evidence of responsibly borrowing being used, this option now was not available and so other innovations needed to be considered.
The Chairman thanked the Portfolio Holder for his attendance.