Agenda item

Questions from members of the public

To receive any questions from members of the public, of which due notice has been given in accordance with Council Procedure Rule 8, to be submitted and answered.

Minutes:

The Mayor advised that eight questions from members of the public had been received under Council Procedure Rule 8.

 

1. Question from Michael Tapp

 

“I understand the unfortunate need for new housing in the South East but we must balance this with protecting the environment and combating climate change. Can we expect to see every new house built with solar panels on the roofs, electric charging points in the driveways and the highest standards of insulation? This will cost developers less than retrospective fitting and will help balance our impact on the environment.”

 

Answer from Councillor McDermott

 

“The Pre-Submission Local Plan, currently subject to Regulation 19 consultation, recognises the mitigation of climate change to be a priority when planning for future growth. The Plan incorporates strategic planning on climate change (STR7) and also has specific development management policies to cover these (EN1, EN2 and EN3). Policy EN3 in particular, incorporates specific targets regarding the provision of renewable energy technologies such as solar panels and the energy performance of new buildings. Until central government provides an uplift to current building regulations, these policies ensure that housing is built to a far higher standard than is required. Electrical vehicle charging points are expected to be mandatory in all relevant new developments and this requirement is detailed most clearly under policy EN21. The Local Plan will also give benefits such as net gains for biodiversity, dark skies, active travel (which includes walking, cycling and horse riding), infrastructure to broadband and importantly lets people start on the housing ladder with more affordable homes or, for those wanting rent, social housing.”

 

Supplementary question from Michael Tapp

 

“I have had the pleasure of perusing EN2, EN3, etc. so I was aware of much of what you said. I also did pick up the Council are going to be using a green method for carbon offsetting. Have you considered, as a Council, using the passive house standard that we have seen work so effectively across other councils (Leicester, Norwich, Fife, Lewisham to name but a few)? Essentially what that does is lowers the energy costs for residents as well as reducing the environmental impact.”

 

Supplementary answer from Councillor McDermott

 

“Everything is under consideration. I can’t say exactly what we will come up with but we are looking into every detail for whatever is happening elsewhere as well as what is happening around us in Kent and Sussex.”

 

2. Question from Marieke de Jonge

 

“Whereas a Citizens’ Assembly prescribes engagement of trained and impartial facilitators and includes a period of deliberation amongst participants allowing them to put their ideas forward and come to a conclusion, a Panel or a Jury do not offer this level of engagement. Instead, a Citizen’s Panel merely puts matters in front of some participants for consultation rather than seeking ideas generated by the public. Given that the original motion sets out an ambition to reduce not just the Council’s own, but the wider borough’s carbon emissions to achieve net zero by 2030, does the Full Council, who voted for a Citizens’ Assembly, not feel it is essential that a sizeable proportion of local residents put forward possible solutions so as to ensure wide consensus and public support, and therefore elect to go ahead with the full Citizens’ Assembly?”

 

Answer from Councillor Bailey

 

“The cross-party Climate Emergency Advisory Panel has investigated the idea of running a Citizen’s Assembly and we will be discussing their report later in this meeting. The report goes through various options including the associated costs and presents information which was not available to councillors at the time of the climate emergency motion in July 2019. Even a large assembly, costing local taxpayers up to £100,000 would only include up to 75 people out of a borough with a population of well over 100,000. I would not describe this as a sizeable population of local residents as claimed in the question. Any assembly will come at a time when the public are already acutely aware of climate change issues and at a time when the UK is already leading the world in tackling the climate emergency. The national action by the Conservative government is having and will continue to have a huge positive impact on our borough. However, these points can be discussed by councillors from all parties representing a broad range of residents from around the borough later in this meeting.”

 

Supplementary question from Marieke de Jonge

 

“Regarding a ‘sizeable proportion’ – if there is already concern (that having a Citizen’s Assembly) isn’t a sizeable proportion then surely having a panel or a jury would reduce the number of participants even more?”

 

Supplementary answer from Councillor Bailey

 

“It certainly is true that citizens’ panels and citizens’ juries are smaller than citizens’ assemblies but I think I worked it out earlier that having a citizens assembly would only include 0.06 per cent of the borough or to put it another way, 99.94 per cent of people would not be attending the assembly, but this is something that we will be discussing later in this meeting and we will be able to go through the pros and cons of each.”

 

3. Question from Adrian Thorne

 

“21 months ago the Full Council voted to hold a Citizens’ Assembly. Nearly two years later the town’s citizens’ assembly has not even started. To give the council comparisons: Worthing Council declared a climate emergency in the same month as Tunbridge Wells - their report was fully published 4 months ago, having moved online during the Covid period. Many other councils have finished in a shorter time frame, all despite Covid. Tunbridge Wells hasn't even started, in fact the council executive hasn't even decided what and when to start. Given that this is an important opportunity for the public to have their say on the most pressing issue of our age, can the council Leader explain why public input is being avoided and disregarded?”

 

Answer from Councillor Bailey

 

“I’m answering this on behalf of the council Leader as it falls within my portfolio. The point Mr Thorne referred to was not a standalone vote on running a citizen’s assembly, it was a declaration of a climate emergency and one small part of the motion referred to having a citizens assembly. At the time of the vote councillors did not discuss the matter in detail or see any information about different options or costs. It was decided that the cross-party climate emergency panel should undertake further research. The panel has undertaken this work and the matter is being discussed under item 10 in tonight’s agenda. In the meantime, a national citizens’ assembly on climate change was conducted in the spring of 2020 with over 100 participants and with a budget of over half a million pounds. The assembly looked at broadly the same climate issues as smaller local assemblies, such as that run by Worthing Council, and presented a detailed report in September of last year. That report was also debated in parliament and so it is not correct to say that public input on this very important matter is being regarded or disregarded.”

 

Supplementary question from Adrian Thorne

 

“I’m still unclear on what exactly is the cause of the delay. You are right in saying it was only one portion of the climate declaration, but it seemed quite clear as far as I can see – we’ve had 21 months and you’re now saying that we have cost issues that need to be discussed by Cabinet. What I would like to know is how has it taken 21 months to get quotes for this project and then bring it back to Cabinet where we were nearly two years ago?”

 

Supplementary answer from Councillor Bailey

 

“The matter was given to the cross-party Climate Emergency Advisory Panel; by their nature cross-party panels are not necessarily the quickest way to reach decisions but it took some time for the constitution or the composition of the panel to be agreed, it then went through another process of agreeing the terms of reference. We then did have a global pandemic and the workload of the Climate Emergency Advisory Panel wasn’t solely to look at the citizens’ assembly – our main task was to run a carbon audit for the council and to come up with the carbon descent plan and to look at the various modelling exercises that were undertaken. It was decided that we would present the reports together, so really we have been waiting for the larger job to finish which involved waiting for a report from LASER, the external consultants that we used. There were various reasons for the delay but those were the reasons.”

 

4. Question from James Tansley

 

“Please can the Council confirm or deny reports that the supplier to whom it paid £43,404 between May 2019 and February 2021 for unspecified work in relation to the Assembly Hall, and whose details the Council has not only redacted from its website, but also declined to reveal in response to a Freedom of Information request, has a family connection to a member of Council staff.”

 

Answer from Councillor Dawlings

 

“The Council is not aware of any connection between the supplier you mention and any family member of the Council.  The Council publishes a vast amount of data that not only meets the requirements of the transparency guidance, but in some instances it goes further, for example we choose to publish details of expenditure above £250 rather than the required £500. In some limited instances it is necessary to redact personal information and this is done with regards to the 2015 Local Government Transparency Code and Guidance, but it is also necessary to adhere to the requirements of the Data Protection Act and the Rights of Privacy. This is a balancing act, but in most instances the Data Protection Act is given more weight than the transparency guidance. It is better to be cautious and not release the information and then to consider releasing upon request where there is a legitimate reason to do so, rather than just publish and open the Council to breaches in privacy and data protection.”

 

Supplementary question from James Tansley

 

“The response to my Freedom of Information request justified the refusal to reveal the information that I requested on the grounds that it could potentially breach Section 40 paragraph 2 and Section 43 paragraph 2 of the 2000 Data Protection Act. However, I am aware that the Information Commissioners Office has stated on a number of occasions, for example in relation to a similar Freedom of Information request in relation to a query to High Peaks Borough Council dated 19 February 2013 reference FS50450700 that it was unjustified for councils to decline to reveal information on commercial contracts on the grounds that the supplier is a sole trader, i.e. that that is in relation to Section 40 paragraph 2 of the Act to which I just referred or that commercial interests might be jeopardised, Section 43 paragraph 2 of the Act which I referred to earlier. In light of this, I wonder if I can be provided with a prompt response to my Freedom of Information request and that both the nature of the work that the contractor has undertaken and his personal details can be revealed?”

 

The Mayor, on the advice of the Monitoring Officer, confirmed that the supplementary question would be referred to the Monitoring Officer so that the Council could properly examine whether it had correctly answered the Freedom of Information request. If the party that requested the information was not satisfied with the response that was issued following the review, then the question had to be referred to the Information Commissioners Office.

 

5. Question from Adrian Thorne

 

“Does the Council accept and understand that the three options presented in the CEAP report will provide differing results? It is not the case that they will all produce roughly the same result, but perhaps some will be quicker or cheaper. They are different processes, with different levels of public input and support. By selecting the Panel or Jury options, the council will be significantly reducing the public chance to be involved in this issue?”

 

Answer from Councillor Bailey

 

“The report at item 10 of tonight’s agenda sets out the differences between a citizens assembly, panel and a jury, including differences in the process, number of participants and the cost so the Council is fully aware that the three options are different.”

 

Supplementary question from Adrian Thorne

 

“Can I just ask Councillor Bailey to confirm that he will be making it clear that the outcomes from these three processes will be different – you won’t get the same response from all three processes – and that if the Council chooses a particular process that you will get a specific outcome to that process.”

 

Supplementary answer from Councillor Bailey

 

“The differences in outcome are listed in the report.”

 

6. Question from James Tansley

 

“Please can the Council provide details of all breaches by Council officials and Councillors of the fifth of the Nolan principles of Public Life, which states that: ‘Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing’ in the last year.”

 

Answer from Councillor Dawlings

 

“I’m not aware of any breach but if you or anyone else has any specific concerns they should take those up with the Monitoring Officer.”

 

Supplementary question from James Tansley

 

“I’m very aware from previous meetings of this Council that councillors have raised a number of issues where the level of information provided to the public falls short of what they have expected. Given that they are spending the residents’ tax payers money, do you think that the threshold for being open and transparent in the way that the Council spends money is pitched too high and that the Council should be more open and transparent in the way it presents the information?”

 

The Mayor proceeded to the next question.

 

7. Question from Adrian Thorne

 

“Can the Council provide assurance that financial resources for the citizens’ assembly project will not suffer as a result of the delays of the executive. I can understand the temptation to claim Covid lockdown has made a full citizens’ assembly financially difficult, however, the Council had 8 months before the pandemic when it could have acted – as many councils did.”

 

Answer from Councillor Dawlings

 

“Your question has been passed to me as it’s a financial matter. First, no delays have been caused by the executive. The matter of the citizens’ assembly is being considered by the CEAP which is a cross-party advisory panel. It is on their recommendation that Full Council are debating the options tonight. When Full Council approved the budget in February 2021 a dedicated report to make an informed decision on the type of citizens’ assembly that was most appropriate for this borough had yet to be received. A budget report set out under risk factors reported that no new budget had been set out for the climate emergency. A budget report also referenced the climate emergency motion which stated that cross-party group agreed to lobby central government to provide additional resources and to grant the necessary freedoms to deliver the ambitions contained in the motion.”

 

Supplementary question from Adrian Thorne

 

“Can you confirm that lobbying has taken place and, if so, what the result of the lobbying has been?”

 

Supplementary answer from Councillor Dawlings:

 

“I haven’t been involved in the lobbying but the net budget required by the Council is dependent on how successful the lobbying of central government is for new funding.”

 

8. Question from James Tansley

 

The questioner was no longer present to ask the question.

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