Referrals from other bodies
- Meeting of Extraordinary meeting, Council, Tuesday, 29th June, 2021 7.00 pm (Item 13.)
- View the declarations of interest for item 13.
To consider referrals from other bodies (e.g. Cabinet)
Members considered adoption of the Housing Strategy 2021-2026 for publication.
Councillor McWilliams reminded Members that the strategy had been to Cabinet twice and through a public consultation. A number of workshops had been held at the outset to establish the principles. The updated version included commitments around creating better accessible properties for disabled residents and including homeworking. It also reiterated the commitment to refresh the commitment to an empty homes strategy. There was more emphasis on working with landlords to improve the private rented sector. There were some significant changes since the last Cabinet version, which included a specific incentive for development partners and other developers to bring forward carbon neutral and carbon positive technology. The council would also seek to retrofit the existing stock where possible.
It was critical for the council to deliver on its sustainability and climate change targets whilst also improving the housing market in the borough. There was a need for more general affordable housing for residents and for those who wished to come into the borough and add their skills and passion to the area. There was also need for a greater amount of affordable rented and social rented units. The RBWM Property Company was bringing forward a number of schemes to achieve this.
If the proposals were adopted, a senior panel of registered providers would be established to bring forward key joint strategies and drive up the number of affordable rented and social rented units. The report also proposed a better way of aligning nomination allocation policies for those wishing to move within the borough.
Councillor Werner stated that he would support the report, but he was disappointed as he felt it was not a strategy paper but a position paper and lacked detail. He had expected it to include specific targets for the number of affordable units to be brought forward. The document also missed out the actual consultation results which were needed to compare with the action plan. The carbon neutral proposal was welcomed but again he would like to see targets. Councillor Werner also stated that he would be interested in other Members’ thoughts on the proposed changes to planning rights.
Councillor Walters commented that the strategy was full of good intentions, but he did not see how the shortage of affordable housing would be addressed in practice. The solution would be policy H03 in the local plan that required 40% affordable housing in developments between 10-500 dwellings. Over 500 units the requirement was 30%.
Councillor Knowles commented that it was a well-thought-out strategy. He raised a concern with the online housing register that although initial allocations worked fairly well, it did not work when people wanted to move to a different size property because their circumstances changed. He acknowledged that this was a result of the legislation rather than a council policy but urged Councillor McWilliams to shine a spotlight on the issue.
Councillor Rayner commented on the affordable housing crisis in the borough where residents faced housing costs 15 times the average salary. Houses were not just homes, but they also provided stability, mental health benefits, and the ability to get work. Therefore any help that could be given was important for society in general.
Councillor Johnson commented that the strategy supported the vision of a borough of opportunity and innovation. He commended the Cabinet Member on the focus on the private rented sector as he felt there was significant scope to drive up standards in this area, and on climate change and sustainability through the use of innovative technology and modern building methods.
In relation to permitted development rights, he stated that he had nuanced views. He recognised the need to increase availability and bring sites back into use, but he had concerns about the quality of development and the ability of the local authority to capture the maximum affordable units.
Councillor Sharpe commented that it was great news but he felt that serious changes would be needed to the Borough Local Plan to accord with the proposals in the strategy such as those related to climate change.
Councillor Carroll highlighted the importance of significant objectives in the strategy to support health and wellbeing.
Councillor Coppinger stated that the only changes that could be made to the Borough Local Plan were those requested by the Inspector.
Councillor Davey commented that ‘ladders of opportunity’ were provided by the ‘snakes of capitalism’. His first house in Leeds was bought for £27,000 with a £5,000 deposit provided through inheritance from a great uncle. Today kids needed more like £150,000, which was not realistic for most. He urged the council to build some council houses and not give them away to housing associations. He would push at the right time that AL21’s 180 affordable homes be made up of two thirds council homes, owned and run by RBWM.
Councillor Stimson commented that the strategy was very aspirational. There were pockets of deprivation in the borough and a huge amount of stock to retrofit. There was a lot of hard work to do but the strategy had strong links to health and wellbeing though green technology, and it addressed issues for those with disabilities, vulnerable residents, empty homes, and carbon technology.
Councillor McWilliams explained that in relation to affordable housing targets, the SHMA underpinned what was in the local plan. H03 did not specifically mention the SHMA target as the council’s objective but the housing strategy did. He agreed that a summary of the consultation results could be added to the website. The document included a seven-page Action Plan with 39 separate actions including target dates. He would be happy to come to any Overview and Scrutiny Panel to discuss delivery against the targets. The Local Plan was very raw on delivery, whereas the strategy added flesh to the bone. Councillor McWilliams acknowledged that there was not enough stock at the local level with multiple bedrooms.
It was proposed by Councillor McWilliams, seconded by Councillor Stimson and:
RESOLVED UNANIMOUSLY: That Councilnotes the report and:
i) Approves the recommendation from Cabinet to adopt the Housing Strategy 2021-2026 for publication
Statement of Licensing Policy – Five Year Review
Members considered adoption of the Statement of Licensing Policy.
Councillor Cannon explained that the local authority had a duty under the Licensing Act 2003 to have a five-year policy. A request had been made to the Home Office to extend this to allow a full consultation with the trade given the situation over the last 18 months. The request was refused therefore the council had had to progress without a full consultation. It had however consulted with the police and fire services and Public Health to develop an interim statement. The report also included a commitment to start a full review within one year.
Councillor Tisi highlighted paragraph 2.10 which referenced a suggestion made by Councillor Davies to add safeguarding partnerships to the list of consultees. Alongside Councillor Davies, she welcomed the inclusion of both Adult and Children’s Services to the list. On behalf of Councillor Davies, she thanked the Trading Standards & Licensing Manager for his guidance, Councillor Hill for seconding her proposal and Councillor Cannon for his strong support during the discussions.
Councillor Bhangra commented that the statement had been debated at length at the Licensing Panel meeting he had chaired in April 2021. He encouraged all to support the proposals.
Councillor Cannon commented that the proposal to include safeguarding was welcomed as they played an integral part in licensing.
It was proposed by Councillor Cannon, seconded by Councillor Bhangra and:
RESOLVED UNANIMOUSLY: That Councilnotes the report and:
i) Agrees to adopt the RBWM Licensing Policy Statement 2021 - 2026 so that it can be implemented with immediate effect (noting the interim nature of the policy as set out in paragraphs 2.8 - 2.11
202/21 Annual Reports from the Overview and Scrutiny Panels
Members considered the 2020/21 annual reports from the four Overview and Scrutiny Panels.
Councillor Targowski introduced the item, encouraging Members to note the reports.
Councillor Larcombe proposed an amendment to add additional wording to the recommendation:
That full Council notes the 2020/21 annual reports of the four Overview and Scrutiny Panels and recognises the need for a work prioritisation process.’
Councillor Werner seconded the amendment.
Councillor Targowski stated he did not accept the amendment on the basis that it was already referenced in the reports therefore it was unnecessary.
Members therefore debated the amendment
Councillor Larcombe commented that all four reports included improved working methods. He referred to Councillor Bowden’s comment that there should be no more ‘scrutiny in arrears’. The council needed to recognise there was a problem with scrutiny in particular the timing. The two elements were the importance of what was to be scrutinised and the urgency. Councillor Larcombe felt there should be a prioritisation process based on these elements.
Councillor Knowles was disappointed that the reports laid out what had been done but there was no audit trail to see if any of the work influenced any cabinet decisions.
Councillor Werner commented that all knew that scrutiny was not working and it was not doing its job according to the legislation. One small facet of the problem was the agenda. Currently these were determined by the Chairman so it was difficult for the Opposition to get any item on the agenda.
Councillor Targowski highlighted that the reports included a number of improvements to working methods therefore he felt it was not right to highlight just one. Each panel should look at the suggestions and take them on board. Prioritisation should be up to each Panel rather than the whole council.
Councillor Larcombe commented that he had only ever asked for one item to go on a scrutiny agenda. One person had spoken against it being put on the work programme.
A vote on the amendment was taken by a show of hands. 9 councillors voted for the motion; 19 councillors voted against the motion. 1 councillor abstained. The motion for an amendment therefore fell and Members returned to debating the original motion.
Councillor Davey commented that it was painfully obvious that Overview and Scrutiny did not work in its current format, the main reason being that the Conservatives hated it. Anything that slowed down policy diktats from central government was a threat. Its real purpose was completely ignored in favour of ticking a box to say it went to scrutiny.
Councillor Davey provided three examples:
· Councillor Singh had been democratically voted in as Chairman last year. The Conservatives immediately looked to a vote of no confidence, even changing the constitution on a whim to vote out Vice Chairmen.
· He had asked for Overview and Scrutiny to discuss the ancient tree in Datchet situation but apparently that was not possible. It was not possible for Overview and Scrutiny to discuss why the system was broken, favouring an insurance company instead of an ancient tree that actually offset carbon and produced oxygen. Unlike the 10,000 trees planted to great fanfare by the Conservatives last year.
· Months ago he had asked for a debate on 5G. This still had not happened but nearly 30 applications for 5G Masts had come in during COVID with most simply sailing through planning.
Councillor Davey commented that at the last Infrastructure Overview and Scrutiny meeting there was supposed to be an item on street lighting on the agenda but it got pulled at the last minute because he had asked questions around the potential risks to residents of the radar effect of the 5G phased collimated beam. This had been addressed with a “we don’t know” and pulled. RBWM Conservatives did want the 5G debate. They thought by having it as part of the climate policy that it made it all nice and green, when in fact it used more than 10 or 20 times the electricity.
However, they did want Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTN), which would have walked into everyday life in the new year had there not been Independent opposition to ask the questions, bring it to the residents’ attention and cause a U-turn. The issue was brought to Communities Overview & Scrutiny where the Lead Member promised if residents did not want them, they would not happen. The result was they did not, and he was as good as his word. Now, with a change of name and a fresh consultation, they were being brought back and would make significant changes to the lives of residents.
He asked if it was part of the bigger game plan, could it be reflected in the new housing estates being built in RBWM. The 450 houses on AL21 needed to be eco-friendly. Councillor Davey questioned if the developer would be happy with this. He also asked if the council should need to wait for 2040, when the UK Government would be chasing around looking for ways to push back on the Climate Change agenda date of 2050, for councils to be brave enough to challenge builders and set very high standards. He asked if should be made easy for the builders and simply force change on existing estates when builders were long gone. Councillor Davey felt this would be double standards. He hoped after his meeting with the developers that week, proposing the above, to see some significant changes to the plans. He commented that they did seem like they were actually listening to residents' concerns and mitigating any risk to plans being turned down. Councillor Davey suggested that the model should be if a builder would not add the LTN to their new application then it could not be enforced on existing estates within a 5-mile radius.
Councillor Davey concluded that Overview and Scrutiny was a waste of everyone’s time and the administration knew this.
Councillor Price highlighted to Members that both she and Councillor Del Campo had supported the report from the Communities Overview and Scrutiny Panel, but not the Chairman’s introduction. Other Members had said the process was broken and she agreed. There seemed to be an approach of volume which led to superficiality and a lack of proper scrutiny. She questioned if individual Members understood their roles and that of the Panel as a whole. She understood there would be some more training which she welcomed.
Councillor Singh commented that, looking at the report, there were some critiques levelled by panel members and equally batting off from scrutiny chairs, which had been a common theme over the year. One thing was clear to him was that scrutiny was not only lacking, it was broken, and it was defunct. He was not going to pick on the Chairmen because he ‘played the ball not the man’. He would leave that game to the small number of members of the administration and their cronies.
Councillor Singh commented that he had noticed one interesting comment from the Chairman of the Communities Overview and Scrutiny Panel: ‘I will strive to conduct the meeting in a manner akin to those in the parliamentary select committees.’ He suggested that this would be an achievement, but first the council should just try to follow the guidance of the LGA and try to return to a standard that worked as a local authority.
A start would be by looking at using scrutiny to influence the policies and decisions made by the council and other organisations involved in delivering public services. Scrutiny should be seen as a ‘critical friend’ and help identify where decisions could be improved and how to prevent mistakes being made or repeated; the Chairmen should help facilitate that. Councillor Singh felt that Chairmen acted as gatekeepers, stopping panel members from asking important questions and fact finding and more intent on racing through deliberately packed agendas.
Looking at work programming in the planning stages, where subjects for further investigation could be identified, was another way scrutiny could be restored in RBWM. Sketchy cabinet forward plans and last-minute agendas popping did not help either.
Councillor Singh commented that he knew all scrutiny work must add value: it must make a positive contribution to the lives of local people with clear objectives. When scrutiny was carried out properly it was constructive and fed into the priorities of the council and its partners. The council needed to return to proper scrutiny, where it could tackle issues of direct relevance to local people.
It would be helpful to regularly report on the impact and benefit of scrutiny which could be measured. The council’s leadership had a responsibility to set the tone and create an environment that welcomed constructive challenge and democratic accountability. If there was buy-in to scrutiny at the top of the organisation (the leader, the cabinet, and the Conservative administration) it tended to follow that scrutiny was resourced. However, there was no buy-in to a scrutiny approach, that openness and transparency and the willingness to be questioned, seeing the value of scrutiny, it tended to follow that it was not resourced as well and there was no parity of esteem. There was a perception that overview and scrutiny was an ‘add on’ rather than an integral part of RBWM governance arrangements.
It was vital that the role of scrutiny chairman was respected and viewed by all as being a key part of the decision-making process, rather than as a form of political patronage. He believed that there were many effective and impartial scrutiny chairs working across the country, but he was concerned that how chairs were appointed had the potential to contribute to lessening the independence of scrutiny committees and weakening the legitimacy of the scrutiny process. Even if impropriety did not occur, he believed that an insufficient distance between the Conservative cabinet and scrutiny could create a perception of impropriety.
Councillor Singh believed there was great merit in exploring ways of enhancing the independence and legitimacy of scrutiny chairs such as a secret ballot of non-Cabinet councillors. Lastly, perhaps a scheme where the impact of scrutiny’s effectiveness could be monitored, and its merits considered and looked into. Residents who he spoke to on a daily basis were fed up with hollow words and platitudes and wanted to see a difference and if Chairmen were truly independent of the administration they needed to prove it and return functioning scrutiny to RBWM.
Councillor Bowden requested a personal explanation. He drew Members’ attention to the wording of his Chairman’s introduction. He had tried his best under the prevailing circumstances.
Councillor Knowles commented that all of the Opposition wanted scrutiny to work. Thanks to Zoom they had been able to attend more meetings, as had the public. Residents had asked him what was the point of scrutiny and he had found it difficult to explain. It should be a useful tool for the Cabinet to allow research and background work to be done. It would be good if all could get behind the process and make some tweaks to some panels. Scrutiny should be seen as a positive, but both sides currently saw it as a negative.
Councillor McWilliams commented that he did not recognise the picture painted by some Members. He had been a councillor for six years and had sat on a Panel as well as attending as a Cabinet Member. He had found the conversations very useful if the right question were asked and long-term projects were put in place. It was up to the Panels to choose their own Chairman and Vice Chairman and determine their own destiny in terms of their workload, and who to invite and talk to. He highlighted a number of successful pieces of scrutiny including the Family Hub and the Homelessness and Rough Sleeper Strategy.
Councillor Johnson commented that the council had never been so candid about its finances than it currently was. It would not be possible to always get everything right and it was ridiculous to claim that. Scrutiny was not just there to hold the executive to account but also to undertake policy development. He highlighted that an Independent had been appointed as the Vice Chairman of the Audit and Governance Committee. He agreed that there was room for improvement but did not accept the system was broken.
Councillor Carroll commented that the Conservatives did not hate scrutiny; it took it very seriously. He personally took it very seriously through the Adults, Children and Health O&S Panel, which considered issues relating to vulnerable individuals. In the past he had worked on various task and finish groups in a cross-party way including on the smoking cessation programme and drug and alcohol review. All should be open minded and look to make positive improvements. He highlighted there were no sterner bodies of scrutiny than Ofsted and CQC.
Councillor Davey requested a personal explanation, but the Mayor ruled it was not a personal explanation.
It was proposed by Councillor Targowski seconded by Councillor Cannon and:
RESOLVED UNANIMOUSLY: That full Council notes the 2020/21 annual reports of the four Overview and Scrutiny Panels.