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 ten questions from members of the public had been received under Council Procedure Rule 10.6.

 

1. Question from Terry Cload

 

“The Pantiles is Royal Tunbridge Wells greatest tourist attraction. The public toilets closed several years ago. When will the replacement facilities be open?”

 

Answer from Councillor Fairweather

 

“Public toilets have been incorporated into the Pump Room as part of the Union House development and they will be open from 09:00 to 17:30 seven days a week.”

 

Supplementary question from Terry Cload

 

“It was asked if a timeframe could be provided.”

 

Supplementary answer from Councillor Fairweather

 

“As the development is a private venture a date is not clear, however it is hoped that it will be opened immediately.”

 

2. Question from Dr Shadi Rogers

 

“Does the Conservative administration believe that the plans for the old cinema site being brought forward for luxury retirement housing with no proportion of genuinely affordable housing represents the best we can do for those Tunbridge Wells residents who are struggling to afford to own or rent a home of their own? What social value does this development really provide for the Borough and its residents?”

 

Answer from Councillor McDermott

 

“The planning policy for the cinema site is provided in the Submission Local Plan and in recognition of the viability issues associated with this site, there is no requirement for affordable housing. The policy was reviewed and agreed by the cross-party Planning Policy Working Group and agreed by Full Council in February 2021 with broad political support, including from the Labour party who voted en bloc to submit the plan, including the policy relating to the Cinema Site.

 

The proposals being discussed with Retirement Villages are for more residences than provided for in the Local Plan and will assessed by the Planning Committee against local and national policy as part of any planning application. It would not be appropriate to prejudge the outcome of that decision. My colleague Councillor Fairweather will set out how the Council is actively working to boost the levels of affordable housing provision in response to the second question you’re asking this evening.”

 

Supplementary question from Dr Shadi Rogers

 

“Do you not agree that this development will do nothing for residents in Sherwood who are in their 20’s and 30’s who still live at home with their parents spiralling private rental and increased house prices which are out of control”

 

Supplementary answer from Councillor McDermott

 

“The previous owners of the site asked for an independent test of the viability report for the cinema site, and it came back it was not viable. It is not appropriate to make judgement on planning applications before it is decided by the planning committee, I therefore suggest it is sent back for further negotiations.”

 

3. Question from James Tansley

 

“At the meeting of full Council on 21 April 2021, the Portfolio holder for Finance and Governance said he was “not aware” of any 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’. Yet even as he was speaking, the Council was refusing to answer Freedom of Inquest request FO9726, an action which the Information Commissioner judged to be in contravention of the Freedom of Information Act. What action is the Portfolio holder taking to make himself better aware that the Council is not wrongly withholding other information from the residents of the borough?”

 

Answer from Councillor Dawlings

 

“The Council publishes a vast amount of data that not only meets the requirements of the transparency guidance but in some instances goes further, for example we choose to publish details of expenditure above £250 rather than the required £500.

 

The Procurement Team run the expenditure reports but must first redact personal information. Where the payment is for a sole trader, it is necessary to not only have regard to the 2015 guidance but also the requirements of the Data Protection Act and the rights of privacy. This is a balancing act but in most instances data protection legislation is given more weight than the transparency guidance. It is better to be cautious and not to release the information and then to be able to consider releasing upon request when there is a legitimate reason to do so, rather than just publish and open the Council to claims for breach of privacy and data protection.

 

I am grateful to the Information Commissioner who after nearly a year of consideration of this case has reached a decision and provided a clear outcome that the council should publish the information, which is exactly what we have done.”

 

Supplementary question from James Tansley

 

“I have read the judgement IC103913W7L6. Will the council now start to publish full details of all items above £500 on their web site under local government transparency code?”

 

Supplementary answer from Councillor Dawlings

 

“We have discussed how we could improve this situation going forward. We will now change our tendering process to include a form where tenderers, including sole traders, must agree for their names to be included in our transparency data or provide a sound reason as to why they should be redacted. This is not a requirement of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, but it is something that we can include locally.

 

Since the information has been published, the contractor has announced that he is no longer willing to work with the Council”.

 

4. Question from Christopher Gerry

 

Mr Gerry was not present at the meeting therefore the Mayor requested that a written answer be provided and recorded in to the minutes.

 

“Did the council adopt the Marmot review proposals in 2010 (Fair Society, Healthy Lives) as 75 per cent of other councils did? If so, what are the health outcomes related to alignment of council policy with improving health outcomes for Tunbridge Wells residents? If the Marmot review was not adopted, what health improvements have we seen for Tunbridge Wells residents in terms of life expectancy, years spent in good health and per cent of residents living in relative and absolute poverty since 2010?”

 

Answer from Councillor Fairweather

 

“Tunbridge Wells Borough Council did not formally adopt the recommendations of the Marmot Review as most recommendations related to county councils rather than district councils. Furthermore, since 2013 Kent County Council has been the lead authority for Public Health and for tackling health inequalities in Kent. The Council did produce a health inequalities action plan which embedded many of the recommendations of the Marmot Review and which complemented KCC’s ‘Mind the Gap’ Strategy.

 

The Council’s Five-Year Plan includes wellbeing as one of its three key priorities and the Plan included plans to promote active travel and to work with partners to improve social and health inequalities. Since the publication of the Marmot Review life expectancy has increased within the Borough.”

 

5. Question from Dr Shadi Rogers

 

“In a recent Facebook post replying to a resident on 26 December 2021, the Tunbridge Wells Conservatives account stated that affordable housing needs were being meet in the Borough because 100 flats on Knights Park, Sherwood ward were being provided by a housing association for £77,000.  Given this is the cost of a 25% share of a 2bed property at a market value of £308,000, does the Portfolio Holder believe this is an affordable home for low income residents on a minimum wage in the Borough?”

 

Answer from Councillor Fairweather

 

“The example you have given is in relation to a shared ownership property. Shared ownership caters for a particular element of affordable housing need. Social rented and affordable rented accommodation are different tenures that cater for other affordable housing needs. For example, social rented housing is 60 per cent of market rate.

The Council is looking to significantly boost the amount of affordable housing in the Borough through its new planning policies in the Submission Local Plan which was agreed by all political parties. For major developments on greenfield sites the requirement is for 40 per cent of houses to be different types and tenures of affordable houses. For brownfield sites it is 30 per cent. 

The new policy requires that 60 per cent of the affordable housing should be for social rented houses, with the remainder being other tenures such as shared ownership houses. So, for a development of 100 houses on a greenfield site 60 will be for market sale, 24 will be for social rent and 16 will be for joint ownership or equivalent.”

 

Supplementary question from Dr Shadi Rogers

 

“Thank you for providing the information but do you not agree the response on the Facebook page demonstrated how out of touch the conservatives are with the need for social housing.  Can you please tell me how many social housing units have been delivered over the last 5 years by this administration?”

 

Supplementary answer from Councillor Fairweather

 

“With regard to the Facebook post, although I am now a member of the site I am unable to view the post and am therefore none the wiser with regards to its contents.”

 

6. Question from James Tansley

 

Between May 2019 and September 2021, the Council made payments to Eddie Lee for consultancy work relating to the ticketing system at the Assembly Hall Theatre. Please can the Council state Whether this contract went through the Council’s normal tendering process, who authorised it and why it was not included on the Council’s contracts register?”

 

Answer from Councillor Dawlings

 

I can confirm that we tendered in the market twice for the service provided by Eddie Lee, first, on 11 February 2019 and secondly on 23 October 2020 (lot 7 of a wider panel tender). Eddie Lee was the only respondent on both occasions, the contract was authorised by the then Assembly Hall Theatre Director, and the register was not updated with the details of the consultant for the same reasons as we redacted the payment information. We will now be updating the register in line with of the Information Commissioner’s Office decision.”

 

Supplementary question from James Tansley

 

“Can you please keep me out of suspense would you please be able to tell me how much was paid to Mr Lee for the work carried out please.”

 

Supplementary answer from Councillor Dawlings

 

“I am sorry I am unable to advise at this moment but am able to provide you with a written response.”

 

7. Question from James Tansley

 

“In response to Freedom of Information request FO9823, the Council said that, instead of spending £97,219.73 on 20 June 2018 for external training as stated on its website (to a supplier whose name it had redacted), it had in fact spent only £300. What was the reason this expenditure was overstated by 32,307%, what steps has the Council taken to ensure that similar errors have not been made and how confident can residents be that other financial information published by the Council is accurate?”

 

Answer from Councillor Dawlings

 

“As explained in the response to the Freedom of Information request, the value of this payment was posted incorrectly due to a formula issue that was not picked up at the time the information was published. We reviewed our checking processes to eliminate these errors. The new checking processes came into effect in October 2018. The process of drawing the data out from our finance systems is a manual one, and as with any process involving manual input there is a potential for human error.”

 

Supplementary question from James Tansley

 

“Can you confirm that the data now published on the Councils website is accurate?”

 

Supplementary answer from Councillor Dawlings

 

“I assume it is, but I have not had a chance to review it myself.”

 

8. Question from James Tansley

 

The 2020/21 budget stated: “Directors/ Heads of Services and Portfolio Holders have been busy trying to identify further efficiency options to reduce the cost of their services and to increase income”. No information on any savings was provided.

 

The 2021/22 budget stated: “Directors/Heads of Services and Portfolio Holders have been busy trying to identify further efficiency options to reduce the cost of their services and to increase income. These discussions continue”. No information on any savings was provided. 

 

The draft 2022/23 budget presented to Cabinet in July stated: “Directors/ Heads of Services and Portfolio Holders have been busy trying to identify further efficiency options to reduce the cost of their services and to increase income. These are still in the discussion stage”. No information on any savings was provided.

 

The latest version of the 2022/23 budget states: “Directors/Heads of Services and Portfolio Holders have been busy trying to identify further efficiency options” and then goes on to say, without providing any information on savings realised, that “the scope for further savings has been exhausted”.

 

Why has the Council failed to identify any efficiency savings in the last three years, and on what basis does it conclude the scope for further savings has been exhausted?”

 

Answer from Councillor Dawlings

 

After ten years of austerity that has seen government Revenue Support Grant for this council reduced to zero and where demand for services and inflation has continued to increase whilst the ability to increase Council Tax has remained fixed at £5 per year it should not surprise you that further savings have become very difficult to identify.

 

The Council has already extracted many efficiencies, invested in digital technology, and delivers many its services through partnership working.

 

The Budget Update report in October also included an extensive benchmarking report which used government data to compare the unit costs of providing services by this council in comparison with its geographical and statistical neighbours. The findings were compelling in that this council was found to have the overall lowest unit cost of services per resident in the comparator group.

 

This is very reassuring in term of being an efficient Council but does make identifying further savings very difficult, without cutting the range or quality of services provided, this does support the view that savings opportunities have been pretty much exhausted.”

 

Supplementary question from James Tansley

 

“The National Audit Office ‘New Code of Audit Practise 2021’ financial year requires extensive reporting on efficiencies arrangement why has this council not followed up on these requirements.

 

Supplementary answer from Councillor Dawlings

 

“I took the view of benchmarking was precisely what we were doing.”

 

9. Question from James Tansley

 

“Given that, in FY 2020/21, salary scales for NHS front line staff increased on average by 2.95% (and less than 2% for those earning over £80,000), that the UK economy shrank by 6.1%, and that inflation in the year to March 2021 was 0.7%, please can you explain why the Council’s Director of Finance received a 17.6% increase in his total remuneration (to £148,972) last financial year?”

 

Answer from Councillor Dawlings

 

“Your question confuses a number of different headings such as salary and remuneration and then fails to explain that total remuneration also includes statutory employer’s pension contributions.

 

Information on senior salaries is clearly published in the Statement of Accounts which were open for public inspection and have been reviewed and signed off by the Audit and Governance Committee and the External Auditor. I am pleased to report that this council was one of the first in the South East to have its accounts signed off and for the twelfth year in a row has received a clean bill of health. This achievement should not be overlooked as even now most councils in this area have yet to have their 2020/21 accounts signed off.

 

I understand that you did contact the Finance Manager to inspect this salary but despite several dates being agreed you failed to turn up.

 

There are two reasons why the salary for this role increased.

 

First, during the past two years this council has stepped forward in supporting the community and local businesses through the pandemic by setting up food parcels, arranging vaccinations and paying over £52m to local businesses to keep them afloat. This situation required staff to continue working and forgo annual leave which quite rightly has been paid as additional salary.

 

Your annual interest in the Finance Director’s post also resulted in a review being undertaken by the Head of Human Resources where it was identified that this post should have been receiving a market supplement that was awarded to all qualified accountants. This payment also correctly increased the salary for the post to ensure compliance with the Council’s Equal Pay Policy.”

 

Supplementary question from James Tansley

 

“Financial year 2021 according to Councils Coronavirus dashboard the council were only delivering half of their services and were rated worst in the country for delivering grants to small business, your Chief Exec was quoted as saying he found it appalling Tunbridge Wells also have the worst bin collection and the Amelia is running over building costs. It was only able to balance its books with money provided my central government, why is the council rewarding failure or has the council lost control where it is allowing officers to pay themselves whatever they want.”

 

Supplementary answer from Councillor Dawlings

 

“I see no evidence of rewarding failure, I see huge efforts going into providing payments via grants for small business and there are huge efforts being made for the missed bin collections, I do not recognise the comments you’re making.

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