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.


The Mayor advised that no questions from members of the public had been received under Council Procedure Rule 8.


Question 1 from  Mr James Tansley


Good Evening, and Season’s Greetings to everyone. The Council claims it has a wealth of information on residents’ views on the way it spends their money from previous budget consultation exercises and surveys.  Yet the most recent comprehensive consultation, according to an earlier draft of this year’s budget, was in 2015 i.e. pre-CoVid, pre-Brexit, pre-£8 million Amelia overspend and pre-£11 million Calverley Square debacle.  Will the Council conduct a full and open consultation with local Council taxpayers before agreeing this year’s budget, in particular, around their desire to see any increase in Council Tax?”


Answer from Councillor Hall


Thanks you for your question and Season’s Greeting to you to.  The budget survey for 2023/24 went live last week, and is an interactive exercise where residents are able to both learn about the services the council provides and set a hypothetical budget to each service. It’s modelled on the current scenario the Council faces of a budget deficit.  Residents are invited to balance the budget, by  giving consideration to their spending priorities, amending the funds allocated to each service with the aim of trying to balance the budget with the limited income the council has available. This consultation will form the basis of informing the Council of where our residents’ priorities lie, where they might want us to make efficiency savings and to inform any budget decisions we make in January.  And yes, the public will be consulted on increasing Council Tax by 3% for 2023/24



Supplementary Question from Mr James Tansley


Thank you I am an avid completer of previous budget surveys and one of my disappointments is that it offers little scope to express views on elements of the budget it very limiting just to provide budget in between preordained list of service will you update that budget to allow local taxpayers the flexibility to express their view more clearly on the use you are making of their money.



Supplementary Answer from Councill Hall


I very much welcome feedback, on the budget survey, this time it is somewhat different to previous ones, and we have listened to previous feedback and try to improve, if you can think of any further improvement I am more than happy to hear them once you have attempted the survey, thank you very much.





Question 2 from Mr David Scott


Seasons Greeting to you all, “Will you please confirm that during 2022/3 Financial Year (post COVID year), Tunbridge Wells Borough Council income has recovered with income which was substantially confirmed in Quarter 1 and Quarter 2 reports (Q1 & Q2, 2022/3):


1.         Extra income from existing car parking charges of approximately £300,000

2.         Over £750,000 of investment income earned on the large cash reserves held

by the Council

3.         Increases in new Business Rates which I understand is about £800,00.

4.         Supported by post COVID income recovery from entertainment, (including the

Assembly Hall, The Amelia Scott and likely income from the Ice Rink), and

income from other services including garden brown bin collections, planning




Please confirm that these anticipated receipts were not included in the 2022/3 revenue budget due to the level of prudence in the budgetary system” and instructed by UK Government



Answer from Councillor Hall


Thank you for your question Mr Scott, welcome back to the Council Chamber and Season’s Greeting to you too.


Yes your numbers are correct and I would like to clarify a few things on each point:


1.         Yes its true car park income is recovering but its still not at pre pandemic levels.

2.         Yes there is extra interest was really the result of fantastic treasury management and investment  decisions from out finance team rather than the recent rise in interest rates.

3          We will not know until year end the amount of business rates proceeds but this will either help to fund the revenue gap or the capital programme.

4          In terms of post-Covid income recovery, I would just like to perhaps, issue a word of warning and caution here, the Amelia continues to require a subsidy of £1.4m, the Assembly Hall a subsidy of £300k, and whilst we hope for a very successful Christmas programme including the Ice Rink, Diesel prices have rocketed and the cost of fuelling the ice rink is likely to rise from £28k last year to £82k this year


In summary yes, these anticipated receipts were not included in the 2022/3 revenue budget. But neither were the additional costs from running The Amelia or from soaring inflation that has seen energy costs doubled.


Supplementary Question From Mr David Scott


Thank you Councillor Hall for your answer, given these items have actually substantially likely to fill a hole that there is the potential obviously of inflation etc, occurring next year and er, there are elements of increase obviously coming from potential rental from this place and also the other post Covid recoveries but what else are you going to do for the deficit you are likely to occur under your observation.



Supplementary Answer from Councillor Hall


Yes in terms of the inherited deficit we have already made some progress within year budget review, and Car Parking increases came into effect the 1st of December.  That will follow through this year but also the budget that will come before this council in March next year.  We are doing a comprehensive review of all of our service with each cabinet member. Which is still be finalised but we are still looking at potential efficiencies there  and we will continue to look at other ways we can try to look to generate further revenue we need to really look at the cost of our asset base the council is very rich in terms of assets but extremely costly and need potential iceberg we could potentially be facing the future so we need to really review those carefully and look at whether they are delivering best value for the council and which if any we can then look to dispose of.



Question 3 from Mr James Tansley


The draft 2023/24 Budget Projection and Strategy presented to Cabinet earlier this month makes no reference to any plans to improve the efficiency of Council operations.  Please can you provide details of the Council’s target for efficiency savings next FY, and the value of efficiency savings achieved in the 2021/22, 2020/21 and 2019/20 FYo”.



Response from Councillor Hall


The Budget Update 2023/24 report that was considered by the Finance & Governance Cabinet Advisory Board and approved by Cabinet on 11 October 2022 included the results of a comprehensive financial benchmarking exercise.


This report used government data from the council’s nearest statistical and geographical neighbours to compare unit costs per resident. This confirms that the council is still operating on a very lean base and has amongst the lowest net unit cost for services within the comparator group. Whilst this is reassuring to residents it does make it more difficult to seek further efficiencies.


The council continues to look for efficiencies but after a decade of austerity which has seen the Revenue Support Grant cut to zero and a pandemic that hit income streams further savings will be very difficult without stopping valued local services.


I cannot reveal to you a target for the next financial year as such, as we don’t set such specific targets, but as any efficiency savings we might make or intend to make would have to be communicated through our internal channels first before being included in the forthcoming budget. 



Supplementary Question from Mr James Tansley


Do you think it is right, with the councils facing a ‘Budget Shortfall’, that it is not making more effort in this area?



Supplementary Answer from Councillor Hall


I would say that we are making efforts in these areas, but erm appreciate you want more information at this stage but would ask you to wait for further announcements when we are ready to make them.



Question 4 from Mr James Tansley


“How much has the Council so far spent on consultants in compiling the Local Plan?”.



Answer from Councillor Pound


The Council has spent £1.27M (actual £1,268,499) over the preceding 7 years on consultants for the production of the emerging Local Plan, which is equal to approximately £180K per year since 2016/17. That compares favourably with the six million pound spent on consultants during the development of the Calverley square project or debacle as you described it earlier.

Supplementary Question from Mr Tansley


Since May 2019 the council paid a contract Public Interest Planning limited, a firm with no employees according to the 2020/21 accounts.  Headquartered in a housing estate in Health field, with 2 Directors David Marlow a 66-year-old former planning officer and Rother district councilman’s wife Nicola at least £198,900 and possibly significantly more. Given a number of months data is missing from the council’s transparency of spend website, what value has Public Interest Planning Limited added to the Local Plan which cannot be provided by the council’s planning department.



Supplementary Answer from Councillor Pound


Thank, you Mr Tansley that is a reasonable question and one which I will explore and come back to you.


Update Response provided


Thank you for your questions at Full Council in December 2022.  I promised to come back to you in relation to your supplementary question regarding Public Interest Planning Ltd.


As you will be aware, preparing a Local Plan is a very resource intensive exercise and there was and still is a need to obtain additional capacity and expertise to support the inhouse Planning Team. 


Public Interest Planning Ltd has been engaged on two separately tendered contracts; the first in 2018/19 – 2019/20 as Local Plan Coordinator, the second from 2021/22 – now in that continuing role. The first contract paid £140,483.59 from 2019-2021 and the second, from August 2021 to date, has paid £105,712.84


In relation to the second contract, an Invitation to Tender was published on the Kent Business Portal and Contracts Finder in June 2021. Following a competitive evaluation process, Public Interest Planning Limited were appointed in August 2021 to assist the Head of Planning and the Policy Team with the Local Plan.  


Since the resignation of the Head of Planning and several senior officers within the Planning Policy Team the services of PIPL are still required as further evidence needs to be gathered in response to the Inspector’s Initial Findings Letter. Consistency of advice at this stage of the examination is essential to ensure continuity and that the right support is available.


I have also explored the competitive nature of the tender process and can confirm:


  1. There were 35 expressions of interest in the opportunity
  2. Of these 35, 4 suppliers opted out of the process and 28 were ‘no response’ (which means they failed to opt or to submit a response to the ITT)
  3. We received 3 tender proposals, which were scored by the evaluation panel.


The tender was weighted 70% in favour of Quality (which consisted of a requirement for tenderers to submit detailed case studies to showcase previous experience), and 30% in favour of Cost.  PIPL was selected on that basis.


The Council is still aiming to have a Local Plan adopted as soon as is practicably possible but there is a considerable amount of work yet to be undertaken.



Question 5 from Mr James Tansley


“According to the Council’s budget figures, staff costs rose by 30.2% between the 2016/17 FY and the 2021/22 FY, which in real terms represents an increase of around 15%, significantly more than the increase in average real wages in the UK in that period (5.2%).  Given this, the fact that the Council is facing a budget deficit of £1.376 million and the fact that local residents are facing a cost of living crisis, why does the latest draft of the 2023/24 budget propose increasing staff pay by over 7% in the coming year, costing an estimated £1.115 million



Answer from Councillor Hall


Despite soaring inflation which is way above the Bank of England’s target of 2 per cent, the council’s pay awards for its hard working, professional and valued staff was zero in 2021/22 followed by 2 per cent in 2022/23. It’s not correct to assume that the forecast increase in establishment costs is the same as a pay award.


The council is looking to make a pay award for 2023/24, this has yet to be determined but will need to reflect the local market pay conditions to address current staff recruitment and retention issues. 


The council needs to employ a broad range of professional staff whose skills are in high demand from the private sector who are paying 8 per cent more than the public sector in the South-East if I can refer you to the (Source: Institute of Fiscal Studies).if you wish to confirm that



Supplementary Question from James Tansley


Please can you tell me why the staff establishment is increasing at this time as I understand the Chief Executive made to his cabinet that he is looking to increase by 5 to 6 taking staff levels up to 320 which is a significant increase since 2015/16


Further clarification provided to the supplementary


I understand the Chief Executive is looking to increase the number of the staff establishment from 315 currently by 5 or 6.  I am aware that in 2015/2016 the staff establishment according to the council figures 285 what is the reason for that increase both from the 285 figure and looking to increase the staff establishment by 5 or 6 in the coming financial year.



Supplementary Answer from Councillor Hall


The question really does not fall within my remit, as portfolio holder of finance, I am afraid I do not have an immediate answer for you, I am going to have to go away and find out for you.


Updated Response provided


There is a difference between FTE (Full Time Equivalents) which is a financial explanation and Headcount, which gives actual numbers of staff that make up those FTE.  For example, our headcount for 1 FTE role could easily be 2 people on the headcount as they may both work part-time.


The figures provided show numbers as of 31 March each year, and are only a snapshot at that time, as staff start and leave throughout the year.



Headcount for TWBC (number of staff both full and part-time) on 31 March for each year as follows:


31 Mar 2015: 295

31 Mar 2016: 301

31 Mar 2017: 304

31 Mar 2018: 313 this was the year the Environmental Health shared service came into effect and TWBC took on Swale BC and Maidstone BC staff and TWBC Revenues & Benefits staff transferred to MBC

31 Mar 2019: 294 during the year 10 people left Environmental Health shared service

31 Mar 2020: 307

31 Mar 2021: 313

31 Mar 2022: 314 Staff from Kent County Council TUPE transferred from Library Services into the Amelia Scott to assist in providing the library services (KCC make a contribution to staffing costs)


And as of 31 December 2022, our headcount was 316 (this year new posts created for the Homes for Ukraine Project, which is funded by Central Government).



Question 6 from Mr James Tansley


“According to the Council’s Carbon Action Plan Progress report, despite spending significant amounts of taxpayers’ money – just under £1.5 million -  the Council has fallen seriously behind the carbon dioxide reduction targets set in its Corporate Carbon Descent Plan, and will not meet its zero emissions target for 2030 unless, inter alia, it abandons waste collections (or else spends even more taxpayers’ money on carbon credits).  In light of this, will the Council abandon its virtue signalling climate action plans, and, instead, seek to reduce carbon emissions (and expenditure) through effective management (such as stopping subsidised parking for Councillors and officials  - a perk that only incentivises car use)?



Answer was read by Councillor Pound on behalf of Councillor Everitt


I am assuming you are referring to the £1.489 m grant funding secured by the Council from the Public Sector Decarbonisation fund which will be utilised to reduce carbon emissions at the Weald Leisure Centre by approximately 9%.


Whilst our commitment towards net carbon zero by 2030 was a challenging target, Council emissions reduced by approximately 1,000 Tc02e between 2018/19 and 2021/22. This reduction demonstrates we are making progress but net carbon zero can only be delivered by addressing our carbon consumption across the council’s estate, through its energy purchasing arrangements and through the delivery of its contracts. We will continue to produce annual action plans and measure the progress of our Corporate Carbon Reduction plan as we seek to meet this Councils ambition.”



Supplementary Question from  Mr Tansley


Can you tell me whether carbon reduction target will be built into the contract with the waste management supplier when that come up for review in 2026?



Supplementary Answer for Councillor Pound on behalf of Councillor Everitt


My understanding is that it will, and I will speak to the portfolio holder to ensure that enquiry is addressed.



Question 7  from Mr James Tansley


According to the Autumn edition of Local, the Council’s Town Hall Pravda, in response to a Council survey, fewer than 5% of respondents said that they wanted to be kept updated about events in the Borough by a leaflet (such as Local).  In light of this, the environmental damage caused by printing and distributing Local, and the fact that Ministers have described Town Hall Pravdas as a “corrosive abuse of taxpayers’ money”, will the Council finally put an end to this unwanted and unnecessary propaganda sheet?






Answer from Councillor Chapelard


Thank you Mr Tansley, for that Cold War analogy, as you can appreciate the depths of the Soviet era was a bit before my time, but I get the sentiment to your question.


The Borough Parentship started just of 6 months ago and as you know our administration has inherited year and year deficit from the previous administration, as part of our focus on the 5 priorities we are making progress on safe guarding the councils finances we are therefore reviewing our costs including the publication of the councils local magazine and no decision has been made at this stage.


Supplementary Question from Mr Tansley


I am grateful that this decision is under considerations, I should draw to your attention that erm comparable publications for Waltham Forrest and Hackney council which are produced on a quarterly basis are a cost of £318,761 and £446.142 respectively there is scope for significant savings, and I hope your consideration will take this into account.



Supplementary Answer from Councillor Chapelard


Unlike those other two councils the net cost of publishing local Tunbridge Wells Borough Council is about £20,000 pounds that’s two, zero, zero, zero significantly less than those other two councils but it’s under review.



Question 8 from Mr James Tansley


In April, the then Portfolio holder for Culture Leisure and Tourism Councillor March said that the council would work closely with Kent Cricket and Tunbridge Wells Cricket Club to enable County matches fixtures to be held at the Neville Ground in the summer of 2023.  Yet, Kent County Cricket Club has now announced that the venue facilities are not considered to meet the necessary standards and will be playing no matches in Tunbridge Wells next season.  How much will it cost to bring the facilities at the Nevill Ground  up to the standard required to bring first class cricket back to Tunbridge Wells?



Answer from Councillor Fitzsimmons


The ECB have published the new extensive requirements in their document “Facility Standards for First Class Cricket Venues” The facilities at The Nevill ground will need investment but we don’t currently have costed details at this stage.”




Supplementary from Mr Tansley


I was reading on ‘Twizzle Sphere’ or whatever they are called in advance of this meeting and there was some discussion of the question of county cricket returning to the Nevill ground and I understand one tweet from the former chair of the Tunbridge Wells cricket club claimed that the council showed disinterest in pursing proposals in upgrading facilities at the grounds, can you comment on this please.



Supplementary from Councillor Fitzsimmons


Thank you Mr Tansley, I think that you shouldn’t believe everything you read on Twitter, we have had actually comprehensive discussions with the Nevill cricket club and also our Officers are going to have scheduled meetings with Kent Cricket Club I hope that satisfies your questions


Supporting documents: